Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Demonstrating value in research communications

08 Nov 2018
It’s easy to get excited about a piece of research, write a press release and send it out. Harder is considering why you want to do that, who you are targeting and how you will achieve your aim.

By Ruth Francis

Many toddlers go through a phase of asking “Why? Why? Why?” to everything. When approaching a new communications role or task, I channel my inner toddler and ask “Why?” Why are we communicating this particular thing? Why is a press release requested? Why now? 

I like to think that I demonstrate my more advanced age by also asking who are we communicating with, and how will we measure success?

Evaluation is how we learn and improve. It is how we demonstrate our value. We cannot evaluate without first agreeing what it is we want to measure.

Is the aim to raise awareness of an organisation, and if so, to which audience? What channels will we use to reach them and how will we pique interest and encourage them to find out more?

In the old days, column inches were measured, literally by someone measuring how much space in a print publication was taken up with the news story and working out how much it would have cost to pay for the same amount of advertising space, known as the advertising value equivalent.

There are many more ways to measure value now. We can look at the reach of an outlet, their audience demographic, geographical spread and so on. It is possible to track whether coverage drove traffic to a website, or if links on social media are clicked on, and if so, by whom. 

Depending on the task, I will draw up a list of target outlets that will reach the perfect audience; technical journals, for example, reach communities who may be extremely interested and engaged with the work. I believe these count more than a smattering of websites that may not be seen by those same readers.

If the aim is to attract excellent research staff, or academic collaboration, which outlets are likely to drive this? Is it best to aim for the broadest possible spread in as many outlets as possible, or would one key piece of coverage better reach the academics who will engage with the promoted research?

And don’t forget the qualitative feedback. A press release I sent out for a university was covered by only two or three news outlets, but attracted exactly the right audience: the funder. The project funder had not proactively contacted the researchers since awarding the grant, and after reading the article, reached out to the team to find out more and discuss next steps. Not bad!

So, annoying as it may be to hear “Why? Why? Why?” agreeing first why you are promoting research means there is a picture of success in mind and provides a clear target to aim for.

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with more than 17 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.