Moving beyond the report + media coverage communications model (or why Prospect’s ‘Publication of the Year’ award should be ‘Research Communications Project of the Year’)

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.

I am Digital Manager at UNISON. My core area of interest is in digital tools and content strategy. As Digital Manager at the Overseas Development Institute, I developed a digital strategy awarded Online Strategy of the Year at the Digital Communications Awards 2012. I have written extensively on digital strategy and monitoring and evaluation, primarily on how they can support research communications with impact. I am also a founder of WonkComms, a popular community of practice for think tank communications staff. In this capacity, I am a member of the blog editorial board, commissioning and editing blogs and regularly formulate, speak at and chair events held at various UK think tank HQs in London and more widely.

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9 comments on “Moving beyond the report + media coverage communications model (or why Prospect’s ‘Publication of the Year’ award should be ‘Research Communications Project of the Year’)
  1. Hans Gutbrod says:

    excellent points — I certainly think it would make sense to broaden the scope, or maybe have an added prize in that category. The issue is that we are potentially looking at really two different products, one where the underlying research is sound, relevant and compelling (uptake is often beyond the producer); the other is the strategic communication of that work.

    Ideally those go together, but sometimes they don’t. Take Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer. The presentation is snazzy, lots of uptake and chatter — unfortunately the research quality below that is a bit suboptimal (partially because of cost constraints, in the countries I know they spend about 1/4 of what it would cost to get quality data). So prize or no prize?

    I think a WonkComms award would be great. Ideally, it should influence more think tanks to have one page on impact, listing up to 5 things they have achieved over the last 5 years. Imagine how much more interesting discussion and learning would be…

    One thing (but that is a sidenote) that I remain puzzled by is that these are all essential questions, but there often is little discussion in the field. Similar, for example, Enrique’s post last week on context — I really thought this was one of the most interesting things in the field in quite some time (http://goo.gl/E5u68). Yet almost zero comments. It would be great if WonkComms can help to change this, and get more of these debates going.

  2. melissajulian says:

    A WonkComms award for research communications product of the year is a great idea, not only to highlight successful work for an organisation (and get increased buy in from researchers), but also as a way to illustrate best practices as a way to increase research comms capacity for other think tanks (especially in the South).

    We’ve just had a very successful experiment at ECDPM (that is continuing!) where we strategically planned communications via various channels and tools to reach new audiences on a new issue we now work on (extractive sectors: http://www.ecdpm.org/economicgovernance/extractivesectors). We not only increased our outreach, but also are having a positive impact in the policy debates in which we work on this issue.

  3. Linda_Margaret says:

    I would love it if people writing the report wrote these aims into their work (not just the report).

    Any product should be produced within a framework that defines what success of the product will look like (and success for a policy report should NOT be selling lots of papers or accruing a lot of downloads of the report – it should be achieving X% of the aims the report advocates)

    Then the team working on the report can think beyond mere outputs (data and the report) and think outcomes (getting something they recommend adopted).

    That might vastly change the product (the report), the work prioritised, and the approach, but it would be much more motivating as those writing the report would be focused on the success of their recommendations and the authority of their expertise, not just their report (which was just a means to an end anyways – I hope, or the people writing the report might as well go into publishing because all they are looking for is readers, not actors).

    • Hans Gutbrod says:

      I agree with the focus on ends, but you also have to be realistic. In some fields, policy change requires 10+ years. Take mandatory minimum sentences in the US. RAND had established in 1997 that they were not effective for non-violent offences. Announcement it might change? 2013.

      This issue on how to accelerate policy is insufficiently understood, but we have to be realistic about in expectations, and strategy.

      • Linda_Margaret says:

        I think you can still be realistic and long-term, but you should still factor in what success should look like – in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term. For most think tanks, I think but would obviously have to do research to verify, that involves distribution and network building and maintenance with the long-term goal being influence. That means less time writing general papers and uploading unwieldy PDFs to your website. It means exploring where your community is going for information, what information they are looking for, and building that into your product creation and distribution – maybe even reviewing who you are reaching out to. Is government more influential in this sector than, for example, start-up groups or big companies who may prefer videos or audio content or attending an event rather than a huge 120 page PDF? For example, if you are trying to reach policymakers in some African countries now as well as in the next 10 years, you need to be thinking feature-free mobile phone distribution (for your network and alerts/updates on new reports/research) and maybe exploring cheap voice-over applications, depending on your audience’. For your network, you may want to look to growing social sites or popular audio casts where the policy makers of tomorrow spend their time – maybe even customising your research a little more per high-level influencer. It’s nothing new, I realise, but I find it frustrating when a new PDF comes out and someone thinks the job is over once its uploaded to the website. I think we can set objectives with measurable goals for the short, medium, and long term, review these goals regularly in light of new technology and trends, and adjust the tactics and KPIs as necessary.

  4. […] is included in funding bids from the very beginning of a project’s life. As my colleague Nick Scott has already elaborated the publication + media release model is dead. Many organisations haven’t twigged this yet and […]

  5. […] my colleague Nick Scott has already elaborated the publication + media release model is […]

  6. […] real nature our network – i.e. an active audience – to make sure that we produce appropriate ‘packages of information’. In this context, the think tank’s role as information gatekeeper (in Figure 1 defined as the […]

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