Never mind the X Factor this is the So What Factor

We shouldn’t let them kill the policy brief like they did the press release.

Much has been said and written about the death of the press release but far less about the demise of the policy brief. But in many ways these two documents could end up sharing a common fate. Both hold or held almost mythical qualities promising rich rewards to policy and media communicators able to harness their awesome power. Workshops and how to guides abound that claim to deliver the secret ingredients for the perfectly crafted example of each of these communications tools. Some of the best from our friends at Research to Action.

The press release (which has been around for more than a century) was the first of the two to be denounced as hopelessly old fashioned. It’s ill-equipped, we have been told to respond to a 24/7 digital news agenda in which Prime Ministers tweet and company directors post their resignations on Facebook. It became fashionable a decade ago to deliver damning indictments of the use of this tool to fresh faced press officers at media training events. Most galling of all, it was often journalists themselves who delivered these death sentences claiming: “we never read them – we just press delete”. The Canadian Government recently announced the official end of their use of the traditional press release in er a press release.

More recently the policy briefing, much loved by research communications specialists, has looked like it might go the same way. Its critics have claimed it is simply a document that on its own achieves nothing. Where is the evidence, they ask, to support the idea that policy briefs influence policy makers’ attitudes, or policy itself? Research from IDS and others suggests that in increasingly diverse information ecosystems digital savvy policy actors may be willing to look for information themselves. In a recent study by the University of Manchester of UK civil servants over half of those surveyed rather surprisingly claimed they just go straight to the source – academic journals. So, is the policy brief like the press release before it, going into terminal decline?

Research to Action don’t appear to think so. They recently held a ‘policy brief week’ which included this rather slick movie. I must admit though I found it slightly baffling. Policy makers are depicted as timid woodland animals scurrying nervously about a forest of dusty old books of research. Once opened the reassuringly academic looking tomes reveal snazzy digital displays of research results which blink invitingly to the animals that hop over to absorb all the wondrous wisdom. Okay, so the softly spoken narrator does mention wider communications work but come on. Change does not happen like this. We can’t just package knowledge into handy html one pagers, with a data visualisation thrown in for free, deliver it to key policy makers and the wider policy community and expect good stuff to happen. Policy change is complicated and policy makers (and the myriad of factors that influence them) are also complicated. Sometimes they might actually want nuanced and complex evidence. Other times sound bites and big policy ideas. They might not even be the right audience for our research. It might be activists and community leaders where the demand is greatest – do they want a policy brief? Are they the little woodland animals too? Context is everything.

However, my grumpy reaction to this well intentioned output and the emerging backlash against policy briefs is probably misplaced. Similarly, the press release doom mongers missed the point. I went to many of those interminable events where they said the good old news release was dead. I spoke to those journalists who claimed to never read them. But when you pick up the phone and speak to the newsdesk or the editor what do they say? Send over the release! Perhaps more importantly consider what happens when you set to task writing that release – you are forced to really think through your ideas. What is the story? Or to be more exact: What, who, where and when. Likewise the policy brief, as fetishized as it can be, serves researchers and research communicators an enormously useful service. It enables us to synthesise complex ideas, reproduce them in plain language and think through their real world implications. Never mind the X Factor this is the So What Factor. Both the press release and the policy brief afford us the space to re-frame our ideas for key gatekeepers. In the case of news it is the journalist who must go and persuade their editor that yours really is a great story. For the policy actor it is their understanding of why your evidence is relevant that provides them with leverage in their own political or technocratic sphere. None of this precludes us from picking up the phone instead, holding a face to face meeting or tweeting a link to a six second vine movie. Policy briefs are just a tool that need to be used in conjunction with a whole host of other communications tools and as part of a wider policy engagement strategy. So let’s stop exaggerating their relative importance and counting downloads of them as if this is policy impact. Even if policy briefs, and press releases for that matter, don’t always get into the right person’s hands at the right time (which they rarely do), they do always enable us to engage researchers and other colleagues in rich conversations about the purpose of their work and the implications it has for public policy. That is worth a lot. And if you want to visualise policy makers as cute rabbits and badgers I can live with that too.

James Georgalakis   

Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute of Development Studies

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Posted in Opinion
2 comments on “Never mind the X Factor this is the So What Factor
  1. colinrtalbot says:

    Hi James,

    As co-author of the University of Manchester report you mentioned can I just correct what could be a misleading impression. It is correct we found that around half our respondents (senior UK civil servants) accessed academic articles, but not that they ‘went straight to source’.

    On the contrary, what we gussed from the survey, and said in our report and have been substatiating since in interviews, is that initial access to academic research (and expertise) tends to be more through other channels (media etc) and then if they are interested they’ll go look at the original academic reporting. That actually fits rather better with your views?


    Professor Colin Talbot

  2. Colin – thanks for this clarification and sorry if in my excitement over your excellent report I misinterpreted your findings. This makes a lot more sense. Good to know all that work with knowledge intermediaries like the media is not wasted!

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