Everything has changed in the communication industry, particularly in the communication of research. We have shifted from broadcast to narrowcast. The communicator has swapped from the reporter to the researcher. Even the reasons why we want to communicate research and what we want to achieve have been radically altered.
But the pace of this change has left many in research and communications wondering what the future is for research communication. All too often opportunities have opened up that are not apparent to research communicators and they continue with a business-as-usual approach to story-telling that is inadequate for the new media environment.
Now there is the opportunity for effective communication of research producing real-world outcomes and impacts. To operate effectively in this new environment, we need to fully understand just how different it is from the old world that we are used to.
The Old Media Environment
Research communications (and my personal experience has been in a subset of that, specifically science communication) used to occur primarily through the old media; newspapers, radio and television. This was a broadcast model where reports and stories were expensive to produce and could only be distributed by large corporations that owned and controlled the distribution networks (the television and radio towers, the networks of newsagents etc.). Stories about research were rare, produced by third parties and distributed to large audiences.
This was a less than ideal environment for engaging an audience with the stories arising from research. The finished stories had to be entertaining rather than informative to suit the distribution models of the broadcaster. Journalists and reporters frequently mis-interpreted the research or sensationalized it, again to suit the needs of the broadcaster rather than the researcher. And, most importantly, the audience that the stories went out to were mostly completely disengaged from the messages of the research. I could broadcast a story to a million people on Thursday night and, by Friday morning, most of that audience would not be able to recall what that story was about.
The New Media Environment
Everything about the new media environment is the complete inverse of the old media, particularly when considering the effects of social media. It’s a narrowcast model reaching out only to those who are interested in the subject. Audiences for narrowcasts are usually smaller than those of broadcasts but they are much higher quality in that, because they self-select to join that audience, they are more likely to engage with the content and act upon it to create impact. Content for online is cheap and easy to produce; anyone with a smartphone and access to the internet can join conversations about any subject that takes their fancy. Those individuals with smartphones have all the equipment they need to produce videos, podcasts and blogs that tell their stories. It’s also cheap to distribute; once you have an online presence, you can send whatever you want out into the ether, around the world and, as part of the ever-expanding electromagnetic bubble of radiation, out across the universe! Now researchers can tell their own stories the way they want to tell them and not have them rebuilt to suit the needs of third-party media outlets.
The implications for this environmental change are profound.
The researcher is now the story teller. It’s no longer necessary to go through a journalist or reporter. Added to this is the fact that most of the specialist journalists and reporters in the traditional media have been sacked, the old media is no longer out looking for stories from research. If a researcher does not tell their own research stories, no one will do it for them. Thus the researcher-as-communicator is not simply an opportunity, it is an obligation.
Communication of research is now a continuous process rather than a rare and episodic affair. Researchers can communicate on a daily basis via platforms such as Twitter. They can regularly produce and publish blogs, podcasts and videos that tell the stories of their research. Research communication has shifted from rare opportunities to a cradle-to-grave model that matches the life of a research project, operates in real time and projects beyond the end of the research into the future.
But perhaps the most profound change to arise from the new media environment is that researchers can now ask the question:
Why should I bother communicating my research?
True, this question could be asked (and was) in the old media environment but the answers are more profound in the new.
The only sensible answer to this question is because the researcher is the best person to communicate their own research. No one knows their research as well as they do. No one else has the passion for research that researchers have (very few researchers are in it for the money!) and that passion is the most effective communication tool available.
Then there is another, even more profound couplet of questions that arise, the answers to which completely reshape the nature of research communications. Now that researchers can select the audiences that they can address, they must answer;
Who do I want to talk to?
and, perhaps more importantly;
Why do I want to talk to them?
It is futile for a researcher to devote any effort or time toward producing a story for a broadcast audience. ‘Futile’ because that communication fails the ‘Why’ question above. ‘Why’ would you want to talk to a million people who will forget your story by breakfast the next day? What did that communication achieve? There was little or no engagement of the audience with the story, that’s why such communications are now futile.
Researchers are time-poor and so anytime they devote to communication must be keenly targeted to produce an expected and practical outcome. If a researcher can talk specifically to a small, engaged audience, this will by nature be a more fruitful communication than broadcasting to a large but unengaged audience. If the narrowcast produced by the researchers is received by potential end-users of that research, then the possibility of creating real impact from that research is greatly enhanced.
For some time now the science communication theorists have decried the deficit model of science communication which was heavily reliant on inspirational presentations. Essentially this holds that the audience is deficient in information they need to know so, if we provide that information, they will all be better educated and the world will be a better place. There was also a belief that presenting inspirational presentations based on research would inspire the ‘uneducated’ audience into wanting to learn more and fill the knowledge deficit.
But the deficit model is a demonstrable failure that has over sixty years experience of simply not working. Inspirational reporting was favored by the old media environment because it could be made more entertaining and thus attract larger audiences. Trouble is, those large audiences failed to be inspired and did not engage with the findings of the research.
Now we can move beyond the deficit model and inspirational reporting. Researchers can talk to audiences that self-select as being interested in the research. So, rather than inspiring them, the messages can be based around other qualities that will create greater impact. How about talking about the relevance of the research to the everyday lives of the audience? Devoid of the burden of often frivolous inspiration, the importance of research can now be directly communicated to an audience who will appreciate it.
Through the Looking Glass
As Alice stated so clearly on recognizing her new situation, it’s time that we also acknowledge that we are through our own looking glass. We are now in a completely new communications environment where everything is the perfect inverse of what we are used to. And, as any biologist will tell you, if we do not adapt to a new environment, our only fate must be extinction. Beyond that, if we do adapt, we have the potential to operate in new ways and achieve objectives that were previously beyond our grasp. This is not a brave new world of oppressive limitations. Set before us are new horizons of unparalleled opportunities. All we need is the wit and wisdom to adapt to our exciting new world.