Add salt to your communications strategy

11 May 2012

Think tanks and research programmes are increasingly turning to the web as a channel of communication. They are setting up blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and signing up to as many social networks as they can in the hopes of reaching hundreds or thousands of readers. But how likely is it that their followers will be in the thousands rather than the hundreds?

For VoxEU, an initiative of CEPR, hundreds of thousands is more accurate. Some of its posts have been read well over 500,000 times.  But VoxEU is the exception to the rule. To begin with, it is an economics opinion site and economists are everywhere and always keen to read about economics; furthermore, even non-economists like to read about economics; it was launched right at the time of the financial crisis; and some of its contributors are columnists for mayor publications who help to keep up the site’s popularity.

But what chance does a biologist or a food safety expert have of consistently getting more than a few hundred web hits on their personal or organizational blogs? Not much.

The same goes for most social scientists. Research on migration, culture, livestock, sustainable development, local economic development, and other such issues can be, let’s face it, rather boring for the general public. And making it ‘sexier’ for mass consumption is probably not the best use of a researcher’s work or time.

Enter The Salt. The Salt is a food blog at the National Public Radio launched in september 2011 that, according to Host and Reporter Eliza Barclay, seeks to:

connect the dots between issues like food safety, the livestock industry, the meat labels in the grocery store, and the hamburger you actually eat.

Blogs like The Salt may offer an opportunity for scientists, veterinarians, economists, sociologists, and many other hard-nosed researchers to get their research out there and into the public eye.

The Salt is not a typical food blog. Its reporters generally do not write about trendy new restaurants or foods. Instead it reports on the political economy of what we eat. And because it is in effect a media outlet it tries to be interesting, accessible, and has the potential to reach millions.

The Salt’s approach works well for other concerns of the international development community -and of many think tanks: Pro-poor tourism, for example, could be a great topic to tackle. Not a travel blog but a blog about the political economy of travel that makes use of research on value chains, the roles of indigenous communities, the sustainability of use of resources, security, climate change, taxation, trade in services, etc. Rural development could consider blogs on global trends such as coffee or or cacao as ways to capture people’s attention. I went to London’s Coffee Festival last month and there were opportunities to discuss the science, politics, economics, and social dimension of coffee at every corner. But all brought tot life by the baristas demonstrations and the smells and tastes of coffee.

DFID and the Gates Foundation fund a great deal of research on health. But as hard as they try, single organisations or programmes will always struggle to get beyond their immediate professional networks (with the exception of maybe one or two articles in the press). But what if all this health research found an outlet in a sort of Health Vox or a Health Salt? Health is an increasingly compelling issue across the world and particularly for middle classes in the developing world: healthy living is a perfect hook into the realities of health and health services in many developing countries and a blog that tackles these is likely to capture the attention of a growing audience.

A word of warning, though: The Salt and VoxEU work because they are focused on the content and not on the cause. Their mission is to inform and not to promote any one position or view. Reporters at The Salt are free to seek out and develop their own stories, which are driven by a number of factors. According to Barclay:

We find stories on other blogs, other media outlets, news events, Twitter, and also our own intellectual musings. My bacon post (which I did for our health blog before The Salt existed) is a good example of that. University communications people pitch us ideas from new academic research or sometimes they repackage old stuff… we cover some of that, especially new health and science findings related to food, health, nutrition, agriculture, etc.

The relationship between academia and journalists is important for this to work. And this is further facilitated by the specialisation of the journalists. Eliza Barclay, for example, has an undergraduate degree in science and a master’s in  science journalism. She and her colleagues at The Salt are all part of the NPR’s Science Desk. As a consequence, The Salt blog is more science-based than other food blogs. This makes it distinct and allows it to dive in and cover a lot of issues that are probably missed by others.

When thinking of how to communicate their work think tanks and programmes ought to consider if media such as these already exist. If they don’t why not help develop them or even rebrand their blogs along those lines?