Communication does not happen without careful planning and resourcing. If you don’t plan for it, it is likely to remain an afterthought or optional extra, or may even be totally ignored.
Proper planning, at the beginning of a project, and possibly when starting a position as research communicator, is required to make sure that communication is included in the project budget and skills requirements. The process of planning guides you to consult and ask key questions before launching a communication effort. It forces you to think carefully about what you want to achieve and who you need to engage, before you decide how to go about it. It guides you to develop and implement a communication strategy that includes evaluating the outcomes. Instead of simply printing another brochure and designing a new web site, you may discover that there are better and more cost-effective ways of achieving your desired outcomes.
Research communicators can help researchers (or research managers) to plan and budget (time, expertise and money) for communication in the same way they plan and budget for research. They should include a communication plan (and budget) when they apply for a research grant. Budgeting for communication will allow researchers to get much-needed help from professional editors, designers, and photographers. Some organisations require a communication budget as a funding condition.
As a research communicator, you may also have to draw up a broad research communication strategy for your organisation, or for a specific department or research group. The same basic principles apply. The best time to draw up this strategic plan is right at the start of the project, while you are still in the planning (and budgeting) phase of the research.
“I strongly believe that the best time for strategic planning is right at the start when you are newly appointed in an organisation – not a year or two later. I’ve seen science communicators fail to act strategically, because they get ‘swallowed up’ by their organisations and torn apart by expectations, internal interest groups and work overload.” Susanne Benner, head of communications, Max Planck Institute für Chemistry, Germany
A research communication plan in support of a specific research project will typically aim to:
demonstrate the success and impact of the project;
sustain public, political and funding support for the project on a local, regional, national or even global level;
attract partners, collaborators, students and possibly further funding;
change behaviour and perceptions where necessary;
help mitigate risks to the project, for example risks that may result from funding cuts or negative public opinion;
engage specific stakeholders in constructive dialogue; and
ensure co-ownership of research between relevant interest groups.
Get the relevant team members together for a brainstorming session of about 2-3 hours (it may take longer for bigger, more complex projects). The aim is to define the project scope and appropriate methods for communicating the project, as well as organise workloads and manage the team.
Ask and answer the following seven questions to develop your own tailor-made research communication plan.
Question 1: Who do I want to reach?
There is no such thing as a general audience for science and technology communication. Rather, there are many people with many different uses for science and technology information and many levels of understanding with which to deal. Consequently, the target audience for each communication initiative will be specific. You need to identify the individuals and groups that are a high priority for you with whom you want to engage.
Science communication scholars have defined groups within the broad society that can be considered as publics for science, ranging from those that are already very involved and interested in science, to people that are hard to engage. For example, teenagers and young adults may be dismissive about science. Often those hard-to-reach audiences (for example illiterate people living in remote rural areas) may exactly be the audience that you would like to reach with a specific communication project. Identify the people with whom you want to communicate, and try to group them in key categories. For example, funders, collaborators, end-users, etc. may all be included as audience categories. Don’t forget to list competitors or people who may be opposed to the research or organisation. It may not be possible to engage all the audiences you list. Prioritise the top three.
Question 2: What do I want to achieve?
Determine why you want to communicate with each group, or what you hope to achieve with the communication. These objectives will guide the rest of your plan. Every activity in the plan must contribute towards reaching one or more of the stated objectives.
Try to make these objectives as “SMART” as possible (Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound).
Question 3: How much do I know and understand about my key audiences?
Try to understand as much as possible about the people you are trying to reach. A useful way of identifying their characteristics is to create personas for different types of people you want to reach. Once you have your personas you can tailor your messages to these different groups. You may need to do some audience research in order to answer the following questions.
How would you describe your current relationship with this group?
What are their perceptions of you?
What concerns could they have about the research?
What are their communication needs (how do they prefer to receive information)?
What is the relationship now?
What do you want the relationship to become?
Question 4: What are my key messages?
Personalisation allows you to satisfy the needs of audience groups by crafting different key messages for each. Think about benefits, impacts and opportunities when you work on your key messages. Answer three questions (for each audience group) to help you craft creative and consistent key messaging relevant to that group:
What are the most important things you want the target audience to know/learn about this topic? (Your objective);
What are the most important things that the key target audience may want to know about this topic? (Put yourself in their shoes and think how they may be affected);
What are the things that the target audiences could get wrong unless you stress the facts? (Clarity).
Now, taking into account your answers to the above questions, craft a maximum of three key messages for each audience group, taking into account their time constraints.
Question 5: How will I engage my key audiences?
Now that you have clarity about your audiences, objectives and key messages, the time has come to think about how you will communicate with them. You have to select the most effective (and cost-effective) tools and tactics. Almost all communication tactics are either face-to-face; online or printed. Your choice of tactics will depend on your objectives and the communication preferences of your audiences, as well as the budget and resources available for the project. In all activities ensure that there are clear calls to action that engage the recipients and allow them to access further information about the project or the research.
Question 6: Who will do what?
This is where you create (and implement!) an action plan, with clear roles and responsibilities. It is important to nominate a person to be in charge – the communication champion – for every specific project. Consider the following questions:
Who will take responsibility for which task?
What skills and resources are required?
What are the milestones and what is the overall timeline?
What are the risks? What is the plan if things should go wrong?
Question 7: How will I know whether I have been successful?
Evaluation can take place as the communication plan unfolds, as well as at the end of a project. The key objective of evaluation is to understand what worked well and what didn’t, so that you can fine-tune and improve your communication practice over time.
Research communication projects often have broad objectives (such as attracting young people to careers in science) that can be hard to measure. Therefore it is important also to identify unique, short-term and measurable objectives for each project, while recognising that it may also contribute to broader societal objectives.
It is important to plan for evaluation from the start, since some vital aspects of evaluation can take place even before a project starts. In fact, many opportunities for evaluation (for example, surveys of visitors at an event) cannot be re-created at a later stage. When developing communication resources, such as exhibitions or posters, pre-testing is a crucial, value-adding evaluation tool. This involves setting up focus groups – which must represent the intended target audience – and testing the accessibility and relevance of the resource with that group beforehand. Based on the feedback from the focus groups, the resource can be improved before printing or final production, for example, by getting rid of jargon or changing illustrations that the target group did not understand.
These online guides to evaluating research communication may be useful:
Ingenious evaluation toolkit: A toolkit originally developed for the Ingenious Awards of the Royal Academy of Engineering – see resources, guides and sample questionnaires
“A science communicator can only be successful if he/she receives full support and backing by his/her organisation. This implies that projects, or even target groups, which have not been listed as priority audiences in the strategic plan, can be excluded in the implementation and delivery of the plan.” Susanne Benner, head of communications, Max Planck Institute für Chemistry, Germany
Documenting, sharing and updating your plan
After this planning session, document the answers and share it with the team members. You may want to give them an opportunity to add more ideas. Once everyone agrees on the final version, it may be a good idea to get key project leaders to sign the document.
A communication plan is not a rigid document. See it as a flexible, working document that will guide your activities towards achieving optimal outcomes and impact. Update the plan as new priorities emerge or new resources become available.
“Planning communication is vital. It saves time, it saves money and it saves stress. It needs to happen right at the start of research and should be inter-woven with the research goals and activities.” Jenni Metcalfe, director at Econnect, Australia
1 Instead of talking about “planning science communication”, Jenni Metcalfe and Toss Gascoigne, both experts in this field and based in Australia, always talk about “planning communication into science”. The seven steps outlined in this section is based on what I have learned at their workshops.
For specific guidance on planning research communication, also refer to this guide – Research Uptake – developed by DFID, specifically for DFID-funded programmes.
Is there a research communication strategy in place for the project, department or institution where you work?
Who developed the strategy, and how? How is the strategy implemented, monitored and revised? Who provides input for ongoing refinement of communication strategies?
Could it be useful for you to develop a “research communication strategy” workshop based on the seven steps outlined in this section to help people in your institution to develop project-specific communication strategies? (Note: This process – following the seven steps – requires at least a full day, especially if you include developing key messages for different audiences. It is also important not to neglect the development of an evaluation plan!)
“The science communicator should work with the research team from the beginning to understand the specific area of science, the context, the background and the likely impact in the science community as well as on the wide world at a specific time. This makes planning communications much more effective, especially when journals notify of publication dates at short notice.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand
“Our aim with research communication is to achieve visibility for our university’s research outputs, including increased research uptake in the communities we serve. This requires teamwork and specialised skills within the university.” Ritah Namisango, senior public relations officer at University of Makerere, Uganda
“One way to make sure researchers think about how to integrate communication planning into their work, is to make training on research communication planning part of the institutional research strategy and planning week taking place at the beginning of every academic year, or make it part of academic development during summer schools and similar training opportunities.” Mandy Jampies, communication officer at Free State University, South Africa