The Winner of the International Publication of The Year at the Prospect Awards this year was ‘Press Freedom in Turkey’, by the Carnegie Foundation. This 36-page publication, accompanied by a 1 page brief, was deemed by the panel at Prospect to be the best in show.
I don’t know why they made the decision, as they haven’t published their reasoning (shouldn’t we be pushing for some transparency here?). Prospect’s reasoning for the award was published on the same day as this blog. I’m sure it is a great report, with brilliant research, that received media coverage to be proud of. But I think we can guess it did not get an award because it has been the most successful publication this year in terms of getting its key recommendations enacted. It said Turkey should:
- End a dispute over the number of imprisoned journalists.
- Move ahead with a bold legislative reform process.
- Strengthen civil society’s role.
- Revive the EU accession process.
I’m no expert on Turkey, but I’m pretty sure we’ve not seen much progress on these fronts since January… If anything, things seem to be at a greater impasse.
According to Prospect, their awards aim to “give credit to the most original and rigorous work on the most pressing challenges’ facing people, governments, and businesses.” All well and good, but what is the point of producing original and rigorous work if the findings aren’t actually making a difference to tackling those challenges? I work with research because I think knowledge can have a direct role in changing the world for the better. But I work for a think tank because I think we have to aim higher than just creating knowledge for the sake of it – we have to get the right piece of information into the right hands, at the right time and in the right format, to give ourselves the greatest chance at seeing the change we seek take place.
I think Prospect have it wrong. The ‘Publication of the year’ award is presumably aimed at rewarding astounding single research projects, which could have been delivered in an institution that has had an otherwise mediocre year and hasn’t a chance at any of the other awards. By focusing on the format this piece of work comes in – a publication – Prospect are missing a chance to reinforce the primacy of the outcome. Rather than ‘publication of the year’ they should look at the most impactful ‘research communications project of the year’ – the complete piece of research that both fulfils the need for an audience and is communicated to them in the appropriate way to get them to act on it.
The old model of report + media coverage
That ‘appropriate way’ of communicating to get action and change will never be – has never been – a report alone. It is no great secret that the media can be essential in getting the findings of research aired and bringing pressure to bear. This media coverage is generally sought, not found by accident. Just as the political world has media-savvy politicians and spin-doctors, the think tank world has media-savvy researchers and media communications specialists. The report provided the reference point, the data and the credibility for the media message.
Changes to how research is broadcast, found and consumed
With the advent of the Internet, changes are taking place to the way information is broadcast, found and consumed. These changes will move think tanks beyond the ‘report + media coverage’ model to deliver new outputs, outputs that bring research to life for the intended audience more quickly and easily.
Initially, the Internet made it easier for think tanks to broadcast their research and audiences to find it. For example, think tanks could:
- Broadcast by email and reach people directly – a cheap way to reach them and easier than getting a slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
- Publish information on a website, supported by search engines that quickly find and return results.
Unfortunately, think tanks aren’t the only organisations that benefitted. Everyone can publish on the web or broadcast by email. Information overload on both platforms is endemic – 57% of email users claim to be overwhelmed and the Google indexes a mind-boggling 37 billion pages.
Social media is a response to this problem. Facebook, Twitter and the like are not just there to share cute pictures of cats among your friends – they are there to help make sense of the web and email – and, to some extent, to replace them. Google now uses social recommendation to provide better results for you. Twitter has, for many people, replaced the email mailing list as a way of receiving updates from organisations.
Social media has even started to play a role in influencing the media agenda. Twitter is a key source for journalists, notifying them of news stories or generating quotes and commentary from well-known people and the general public.
Information overload is also changing the way information is consumed. Faced with more information, people are not necessarily more discerning, but give things less focus. This is even true of academics: a 2008 study found that while the average number of article readings per US scientist is increasing, the average time spent per reading is declining.
If academics are spending less time on every piece of research, what hope is there for the general public, the media, the NGOs or the politicians? Very little, it seems to me. The story of the Internet is one of text that is scanned, not read. On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.
Social media reinforces this preference for outputs that aren’t onerous reads. My ODI communications metrics dashboard tells me that people on social media prefer shorter or multimedia outputs. Infographics are picked up and shared, as are blogs (which, when well formatted, should be easy to scan and understand) and videos. Research reports rarely are. This is not just about information overload – it is also about personal learning habits. Some people learn by reading; others by hearing or seeing.
If social media is where the news media increasingly find stories and commentary, then a think tank that only produces research reports is missing a trick in getting their findings picked up. If social media is influencing what appears at the top of Google results, then a think tank that only produces research reports is not even going to register even for those actively looking for the findings. On both counts, following a ‘report + media coverage’ model becomes a recipe for reduced influence.
Dealing with the changes: matching research communications outputs to a theory of change
If we accept that the age of the Internet requires different, more scannable and shareable outputs, the follow on question is, inevitably, which outputs are best? Very few are the think tanks that can afford to communicate every piece of research in a video, infographic, live streamed event, podcast, blog, and a 1, 3 and 50 page publication. So what do you choose?
Here is where a Prospect ‘Research communications project of the year’ award could have helped to focus minds on the key consideration of all communications projects: the objective. The award would pick research communications projects where there was a clear theory to how change could be incited and activities and outputs were framed around this. It would reward outputs and messages clearly targeted at an audience who can make change happen – including proxy audiences such as the media, general public or civil society. It would reward interventions that happen at the appropriate stage of the policy cycle – be it policy formulation, enactment or review. It would reward success in delivering change, but also the route to getting there.
With a clearer sense of what success could look like, it becomes easier to decide where to focus communications efforts and which outputs to produce. There is no single recipe for success: the audience, context and messages always differ so the route taken will too. So, instead of me giving a series of steps to success, I’m collecting together some examples of products that could potentially be candidates for awards, starting with some that the WonkComms account or I have tweeted about recently. These are obviously a tiny and completely unscientific sample of what is going on out there in think tanks. As they are generally fairly recently communicated pieces of research, it is hard to judge their success in terms of achieving the changes they set out to make.
Perhaps, in the absence of a Prospect award, WonkComms should set one up? What would be your nominations for research communications project of the year? Answers in the comments below, please, or on our LinkedIn Community of Practice.