The power of the ‘package’ in communicating forestry research

21 March 2013
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

Packages are powerful.

I’m talking about multimedia packages – a variety of digital media content brought together online and used to communicate a particular story.

At the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), our multimedia packages have been used to inform policymakers on the state of the forests in the Congo Basin; to keep forestry experts and civil society up-to-date on the latest forest research and policy developments during the annual United Nations climate change negotiations; and inform Indonesian stakeholders on how a global scheme to reduce deforestation (known as REDD+) is working on the ground.

Why are we doing this? Like many research organisations and think tanks, one of our biggest challenges is finding fresh new ways to communicate our research.  Often not as sexy as humanitarian and development research, forestry research findings can be difficult to ‘sell’ to a broader audience. For us, multimedia packages allow us to be more creative with our content, to bring in the often forgotten human-element related to forests, and to better relate our research to wider policy developments and world affairs.

While we don’t claim to have the magic formula (social and digital media tools are constantly evolving, so we are learning all the time!), here are some tips for think tanks or research organisations looking to experiment with multimedia packages in the future.

What is a multimedia package?                 

A multimedia package brings together a combination of text, photographs, video clips, audio, graphics and interactivity together on a website. At CIFOR we tend to create a platform or landing page, which features a number of the following:

The aim is to use a variety of different media to tell a story of your research in a compelling and informative way. Think of every blog, video or photo as a ‘teaser’ intended to engage the audience and encourage them to explore your research further, for example, by downloading your policy brief or working paper. At CIFOR, we always ensure that our packages include links to relevant research papers, and we have seen a strong correlation between readership of packages, increased downloads of linked publications, and increased citations of these publications in scientific journals.

The choice of content is up to you, but they are used best to explore issues and ideas around new research findings, to draw attention to a particular theme or issue, or to repackage older content in light of new research or policy developments.

What can a package do for you?

  • Deliver your ideas to policy makers the digital way, fast: With the proliferation of media channels and so many research organisations releasing a wide range of products, policy makers are saturated with information. A targeted multimedia package, containing strong and relevant content that is well promoted through social media and digital channels will undoubtedly stand out from the crowd. Whilst presenting at the U.N. climate negotiations in Durban, the Costa Rican Environment Minster commented on a ‘great map of REDD+ projects across the world’ that he had read about on CIFOR’s blog. The story was part of a package of stories to update policymakers with the latest news and research on forests – it shows that you never know who is reading.
  • Inform the media: Traditional journalism as we know it is changing. Because of ever decreasing budgets, media outlets are becoming more reluctant to send journalists to the field to do investigative research. A package of well written stories, interesting photographs and videos, and colourful case studies are more likely than ever to inform the media of important stories. Straying from traditional text stories and using a variety of different visual mediums (the multi in multimedia) can also greatly increase your chances of being picked up by online media who are branching into more visual ways to communicate messages to the public. For example, our Congo Basin photo story was picked up by the online arm of the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

However, beware: journalists will be turned off if your package is seen as something straight out of the public relations campaign, which brings me nicely to my next point….

  • Bring depth and colour to your research: At CIFOR, our packages are journalistic in style, and based on evidence, which has allowed us to explore issues raised in our research in more depth. We try to bring in the voices of a wide range of stakeholders that a single publication, blog or video could not do alone. For example, for our Congo Basin package, we wanted to show the challenges of sustainable forest management from the perspectives of field researchers, partner organisations, local communities and young scientists living with the realities on the ground.
  • Open up opportunities for collaboration: A multimedia package can be a great opportunity to collaborate with partner organisations.  As Nick Scott, from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), mentions in a previous On think tanks blog post, it is important to ‘exploit your content niche’ and work with others to improve your skills in weaker areas (see some excellent tips on videos here). Collaboration can also maximise the outreach of your package by sharing mailing lists, reposting blogs and content on partner websites and social media sites, as well as open avenues for translation and promotion in other languages.

What can I include in my package?

Of course, the content is up to you and depends on who you are looking to target, but here are some examples from CIFOR and other organisations for inspiration.

Things to think about before you get started:

  • Why are you creating a package and who are you trying to target?
  • Is there a knowledge or policy gap that you could fill?
  • What are your key messages?
  • If you are looking to target specific media outlets, then look at the types of multimedia they are producing or showcasing.
  • Think about the types of media (video, blogs, publication, infographics) that will best tell your story.
  • Think about the social media community you are trying to reach, and how they like their information packaged.
  • Are you going to create completely new content, or draw from older material (or both)?
  • Remember that each piece of content needs to be complementary rather than re-tell the same story.
  • Is there an event or media opportunity that can help leverage your research?
  • Are there any partners that can help you create your content in new and interesting ways?
  • Will you translate your content into other languages to maximise your reach?
  • Does all your content have links or sign posts to direct users to your core research and publications?

How to create one?

This depends on the skills and resources available, but here are a few pointers:

  • Firstly set up your social and digital media accounts and upload your content. (We have mentioned several already, but in this blog, Nick Scott from ODI, explains some social media and digital tools that think tanks are using and this other post by Enrique Mendizabal includes a broader set of digital tools).
  • To create a simple package, embed blogs videos, photos and PowerPoint presentations straight into a WordPress blog post.
  • Alternatively, if you are using a content management system such as TYPO3Joomla or WordPress then you can bring in a variety of different media content using many of the available plug-ins or add-ons. For example, in WordPress, you can use a WP Photo Album Plus plug-in to create and customise photo galleries and albums.
  • At CIFOR, we like to have more flexibility with the design, so we create our own html template which aggregates information from our social media accounts and RSS feeds.

The grand design:

Again this is dependent on the type of content management systems you are using and how flexible you can be with your design, but some things that are worth remembering.

  • Think about the overall look and feel, its needs to be informative, yet attractive and engaging.
  • Don’t try to cram in too many products, but provide an option for users to access more if they want to.
  • Don’t compromise quality over quantity – just because you have 20 photos, doesn’t mean you have to use them. Be selective. Keep it simple.
  • Remember to ensure that viewers are able to engage with your content, for example, by leaving a comment,  through Twitter ‘retweets’ and Facebook ‘likes’.
  • Also remember to ensure that people are given the option to ‘follow’ your social media channels. (Social Follow can help you do this).

Putting your package out there:

  • How will you use your existing mailing lists and contacts to get your package to your target audience – a media advisory, newsletter, personal email, or event?
  • What social media will you use to promote the content – LinkedInTwitterFacebook, a personal email?
  • Can you make use of partner organisation contacts and mailing lists?
  • If your aim is to attract media attention in particular country or region, ensure that you target the right media in those areas.
  • Think about creating a DVD of the content to give out at events, conferences, or colleagues.