What we can learn from academics about strategic communications

11 November 2022

Academic researchers seek to contribute new knowledge to their field. They publish their work in well-respected peer-reviewed journals and present their papers at academic conferences using technical or specialist language that is understood by, and resonates with, their readers.  

Well, this is textbook strategic communications! A clear objective and target audience. Audience-appropriate language, messaging and outputs that are taken directly to where that audience is. 

When it comes to research communications, there is a lot we can learn from this well-oiled academic machine. Processes, habits and incentives are all aligned for strong academic impact.

But, for policy research, reaching other academics isn’t enough. And this doesn’t just apply to think tanks. Universities are increasingly having to join the fight for publicly funded research grants, where demonstrated policy impact is non-negotiable. In the UK, for example, Research Excellence Framework impact case studies require many academic projects to demonstrate how their research has ‘resulted in a change, had an effect on or benefited culture, the economy, the environment, health, public policy, quality of life or society.’ 

Some research organisations fully embrace the challenge of using research to influence positive change – Donald Abelson has written about the rise of the ‘advocacy tank’ in the US for example. Others worry about straying too far into advocacy and losing objectivity (and therefore credibility).

Wherever you sit in that debate, I perceive a huge gap between what donors ask for in terms of policy impact and how many universities, think tanks, academics, and researchers more broadly are set up to think and work. 

If we add to our academic’s target audience list, policymakers, media, practitioners and the public… technical language, journal articles and academic conferences are not going to work.  

Some academics are adapting fast and learning new skills – I have worked with researchers who are doing this. But it’s not easy and there is still limited support, understanding and incentives to transition to these new ways of working. 

The relatively short-term nature of research projects (often 2-5 years) presents an on-going challenge. There’s a need to balance policy briefs and public-facing outputs in a fast-paced policy environment, with robust and rigorous academic contributions that involve lengthy peer-review and journal submission times.

But more importantly, many research projects – be they in universities or think tanks – are still not recognising the essentiality of including communications/policy engagement specialists and resource to achieve impact beyond academia. 

I’ve seen and been a part of multi-million-pound research projects with just one (sometimes part-time) communications professional. The communications staff are rarely involved in the project design – and if they are, it’s rarely substantive input. 

Often project managers, administrators, or junior research staff are tasked with the communications work. Last year I joined a workshop for research project managers, and I heard the same story over and over again: we have very little or no communications support.  ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing’ said one. ‘The Principal Investigator doesn’t know how much time and skill it takes’ said another. 

Of course, academics can also be great communicators and learn the skills needed to think about how to design and deliver research projects that satisfy academic and policy impact goals. But I think it’s also ok to recognise that academics and communicators/engagement specialists bring different skills to the table (I’ve written about this before).

If we want academic impact, we can invite a team of academics to design our research project and they will do a fantastic strategic job. But then it follows that if you want policy impact, you need policy impact and engagement specialists involved in co-designing and delivering the project. 

Academic and policy impact goals are not mutually exclusive either. I’m not suggesting that we replace all peer-reviewed research with infographics. Publishing in academic journals gives evidence and early-career researchers credibility – contributing to a robust evidence base for change and long-term impact. 

But to achieve policy impact we must do more. 

Donors: if you require research projects to deliver policy impact, also require them to have a good number of communications/engagement specialists within their team. And not just an advisor with a couple of days on the project. At least one full-time communications specialist – if not a small team, depending on the size of the research team.

Principal Investigators and project managers: build teams that include communications and policy engagement specialists from the start. They can help you work out what is feasible in terms of policy impact, how to strike the balance between academic and policy ambitions. If you really want to see policy impact (either because you want to make a difference with your research, or because your future funding depends on it, or maybe both), invest budget in communications and policy engagement. 

At the moment, I fear that many projects are falling down the gap – neither fully satisfying the academic nor policy impact goals.