How researchers get heard

Your Research Project is Really a Communications Project

In response to my email Friday, “Media Are the Sprinkles,” a list member who directs communications for a research center responds:

Very relevant from my perspective. Content-first approaches are what get you in the news anyway. It just takes a little time and effort.

Hell, we don’t even pitch except for the rare, extremely newsworthy story — and then it’s often just a courtesy. We try to create good content and leverage communities of interest to expand our audience. Our major media placements have grown at about a 75% annual rate over the past four years. This year they should be over 650, which I didn’t really expect in an election year filled with every horror known to man. (And that’s with many requests falling through the cracks because our experts are not willing to be generalists for the most part. Or are filling out a grant proposal, etc.)

Major media placements are the only communications metric our board cares about, so it’s the only one we bother to track closely.

So it comes as no surprise that a fundraising director discounts creative content. It gets back to the problem of putting a $$$ value on comms in the first place. Comms affects partnerships, recruiting, development and donors, the whole lot — but there’s no direct line stat that shows how it affects the bottom line.

I view development officers as largely complicit in the lack of funding for (and focus on) public communications. They really don’t think it matters, in my limited experience. Maybe part of that is ego, or maybe they just don’t get things that are not clearly visible in a bottom line.

Communications, depressingly, gets commodified inside organizations this way all the time. Media hits are both “the impact” to be celebrated and also something that can be obtained on the cheap, through connections and gamesmanship.

COVID and climate change have proven the following, but research and its advocates still need to hear it again and again:

There are no such things as research projects “to be communicated” — only communications projects based in new research and expertise.

Every research project that seeks impact is really a communications project seeking dialogue. The research has no value or effectiveness outside that framing.

Everyone else in the research ecosystem — from most researchers to research directors to development directors to boards — will almost certainly be skeptical about that assertion. The communicators’ task is to find researcher co-conspirators to help them prove the added value through test cases.

Look around you. Listen to the cacophony and the confusion. Then try to tell me research —​ as Theodore Levitt once said about railroads and transportation —​ is in the research business, not the communication business.