How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Redressing the Researcher-Communicator Imbalance

In certain classes of research-driven organizations (e.g., smaller think tanks, some NGOs, university-based research centers), it’s often researchers and research directors who call the communications shots. Their comfort level dictates:

  • The way individual pieces of content look and feel;
  • Where, how and how often the content gets promoted and to whom;
  • Which content is deemed priority for the research vertical and/or organization;
  • The content marketing strategy for the research vertical and/or organization (and whether there is a content strategy or not).

Think about this dynamic for a second. Remember that most researchers need improvement — in many cases, substantial improvement — communicating their own research results and expertise. Why should they be allowed to dictate overall communications strategy for a research vertical…or a whole organization?

Researchers should be collaborators with research communicators — but communicators should lead. The reasons they’re not allowed to lead are various and common to many workplaces, including but not limited to:

  • Power (a disparity between the rank of the researcher and the communicator);
  • Fear (of the researcher or the organization not appearing credible to their professional community);
  • Sexism (research communications is, in many organizations, staffed by women); and
  • A snobbery toward communications as something less than a discipline, something more akin to common sense or taste. (This is often power hiding, but it would take at least another email to tease that out.)

To understate hugely, each of these factors is deeply rooted and challenging to overcome. And they are often layered.

The communicators I know who have successfully overcome these challenges have — to a person — specialized and become authorities in their own right.

They might accomplish this through conventional academic channels: earning a PhD, writing a book, and/or authoring peer-reviewed articles. Through credentials.

But they can also accomplish this through knowledge — by becoming authorities about the audiences of their organizations and positioning themselves as advocates for those audiences.

You do this through steps including:

  • Surveying and interviewing your audience;
  • Testing content tactics and reporting transparently and regularly on what works and what doesn’t;
  • Networking with your peers for similar findings;
  • Understanding what adjacent sectors (such as journalism and marketing) are doing to acquire and retain audiences (and reporting regularly on what you’re finding);
  • Running a clearly-identified publication as a test bed for audience acquisition and retention, and setting content and content marketing standards for that publication that reflect your growing knowledge of your audience;
  • Funneling everything you learn through doing the above into a content marketing strategy for your organization; and
  • Publishing articles for the discipline, being interviewed in podcasts, speaking at conferences.

(And managing up, of course.)

Your equalizer is data, and a wider understanding than your research collaborators have of what is happening in your sector and adjacent sectors. Go all in for metrics. Start reading more Digiday and Nieman Lab.

I intend this post to start a conversation — a “resolved” based on my experience as a communicator, marketer and consultant. What am I missing? What do you disagree with? What are your challenges as a communicator — and as a researcher working with communicators?