Being a research communicator can be tough, but it is rewarding. It often means pleasing different people who may have opposing agendas. It definitely involves juggling competing priorities and deadlines. It requires diverse skills, from knowing how to communicate during times of crisis to making the most of evolving social media platforms. Research communicators have to be creative, versatile, flexible and innovative in order to fulfil many different roles within a research organisation. You may recognise yourself in some of these roles:
Critical listening skills allow you to diagnose problems and offer workable solutions. They will increase your value, because you’ll understand the challenges facing your organisation and your colleagues better. You’ll also truly understand how messages are being received by your audiences – including your critics.
“Science communicators need to be all-rounders. You need excellent interpersonal skills – particularly when working with research scientists. You need to be flexible and approachable, but also assertive. You have to be able to express and defend your own point of view. Most of all, you must have a strong work ethic and a passion for sharing science.” Heather Ndlovu, lecturer and research uptake manager at the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe
As a research communicator you are the bridge between scientists (who may be lurking in the ivory tower) and the world outside. A key part of your job is to create linkages and foster mutual respect between scientists and external publics. Think of yourself as an “enabler” who help scientists engage with society.
Your role as catalyst is to be the “spark” that ignites interest and activities around research communication at your organisation. You have to take the initiative to make it happen. This requires you to partner with the researchers and the leadership of your university. Be bold and don’t shy away from giving unsolicited advice about the need to communicate research.
Change agent and negotiator
Research communicators also need to be able to make a case for why communication matters, and how it can add impact, influence and leadership in science. A key objective for you may be to challenge the way research communication is viewed and valued within your university. You may need to convince management of the need for a university-wide research communication strategy, underpinned by an enabling policy that will encourage researchers to communicate. You will have to negotiate to include public communication and engagement in promotion criteria and to introduce award schemes that will recognise and reward excellence in public research communication and engagement.
These days most research happens in teams – often large teams. The teams may consist of researchers from many departments, faculties, institutions, and even different countries. It is therefore a key role for you to promote communication of research that involves collaboration across disciplines, departments and even with other institutions.
Move your communication practice to the next level by exploring novel, fun and creative ways to share science. Get new ideas by looking at how other people use games, comics, digital technology, music, art, poetry, theatre and even dance to share science with audiences of all ages.
“I look for four L’s in science communicators: Listening skills; Loving what they do; Learning new things all the time; and Linking with others.” Jenni Metcalfe, director at Econnect, Australia
Most researchers are willing to communicate their science, but they need some infrastructure and support to get started. As an enabler, you must be up to date on relevant communication opportunities such as science weeks, science centres, science slots on radio programmes and more. It is up to you to make sure that the scientists from your university are seen and heard via these platforms. In some instances you may be required to create forums that provide opportunities for researchers to engage the public.
Inside your university there are many researchers and research projects. In the outside world there are opportunities to communicate and audiences that should be engaged. Your job as matchmaker entails linking the most relevant researcher and science stories with the best platforms, events and opportunities.
You are a key mediator between researchers (inside your organisation) and many publics on the outside who could benefit from their work. You create linkages and keep communication channels open. You create opportunities for researchers to engage and help them to distil complex ideas in a way that people can grasp easily and understand why it is important. You create opportunities for people to let scientists know what the people want to know about the research, and what is important in their everyday lives. You can add significant value by feeding stories from local people (and their relevant local knowledge) back to researchers.
To be effective, you need to plan and evaluate your communication activities. Clear thinking and proper planning saves time, money and stress, and ensures that communication is included in budgets and resource plans. Planning of research communication takes place at different levels. There is planning for your entire institution, for each faculty, for each department in each faculty, and then for each individual researcher.
“The thing I like most about my job, the thing I never get sick of, is the fact that I get to learn something new every day. Every time I interview a researcher about a forthcoming paper, I get to ask them as many questions as I want. It’s like having my own personal class, with a steady rotation of teachers and a staggering variety of subjects. I never get bored. And you’ve got to love a job like that.” Matt Shipman, science writer and public information officer at North Carolina State University, USA
Nurturing good relationships with researchers, research managers and other communicators (for example journalists) is the lifeblood of your career. It is important to get researchers to trust you to help them achieve broader impacts for their work than before. You do this by demonstrating genuine interest in their work, and keeping them informed of successes and milestones during your collaboration. Make time to interact with research managers and postgraduate coordinators in your university to remind them how they can collaborate with you in making the research done within your university visible. Similarly, being professional, pro-active and responsive when you deal with journalists will, over time, ensure that you become a trusted source and point-of-contact for the mass media.
In order to plan communication into science, you need to identify the audiences you want to engage. You need to know and understand as much as possible about your audiences. Instead of targeting “the general public”, you need to think carefully about the most important groups relevant to a specific communication plan. You need to find out about the perceptions, needs and communication preferences of these segmented audiences. This knowledge will inform the rest of your communication plan. You also need to monitor and evaluate the efficacy and impact of your own projects.
Things don’t always go well when experts communicate to the outside world. Researchers may be angry about the way a journalist reported on their work, or disappointed with the questions they had to answer at a public event. Your job is to help them manage these risks, by preparing really well for media engagements, and by anticipating tough questions. This includes thinking carefully (in advance) and preparing for responses of people and interest groups who may be opposed to the research.
As a research communicator, you will often have to sell new communication ideas to managers, and you may need to fine-tune your persuasion skills to motivate scientists to participate. At the same time, it will be your job to “sell” (or pitch) science stories to external audiences (often journalists), and do so responsibly (i.e., no overselling or hyping up). It’s also important to “sell yourself” and what you do continuously – by reporting back to decision-makers in your organisation about the positive impacts and spinoffs that have resulted from your communication efforts.
“It can be challenging to convince researchers that apart from publishing in academic journals, there is also value in having your research out in the public domain. I have to prepare them and assure them that I will be the bridge between them and the media.” Dr Alec Basson, media officer at Stellenbosch University
We increasingly recognise that the human brain is wired to listen to, remember and re-tell a good story. Therefore storytelling – along with the ability to fire up people’s imaginations – is a powerful way of communicating research. That means research communicators must know how to take a “dry and technical” science article and turn it into a compelling narrative. It often involves moving down from the head – where all the rational and intellectual information is stored – to the heart where you focus on feelings and experiences. Storytelling is about making science personal and connecting with people on an emotional level. Randy Olson, author of “Don’t be such a scientist”, defines stories as “facts wrapped in emotions”.
Being a strategist is all about working towards achieving specific goals. This means beginning with the end in mind and tailoring your content. You must know what you want to achieve, and then plan and work towards that. Instead of running around and doing whatever activities come to hand, you must plan ahead and make sure that everything you do contributes towards a pre-agreed set of goals. It is also important to align what you do with the goals of your institution. These goals may include reputation building, but also demonstrating social responsiveness.
“Communicators who are responsible for both corporate and science communication, will often experience competing demands on their time. This is a tricky balancing act where science communication often lose out, since institutional (or corporate) are frequently perceived to be more urgent. I would love to devote more time to science writing, but when something happens on campus requiring urgent communication support, I have no control over that.” Dr Alec Basson, media officer at Stellenbosch University
Being a research communicator means being a student for life. In addition to learning by observing others, you have to make time to stay up to date with communication trends and research outcomes via popular media and research journals. Commit yourself to professional development by enrolling for further courses, such as masterclasses or postgraduate programmes in science communication. Participate in research communication networks, meetings and conferences, or take the initiative to set up events and networks where there are none.
You must be able to equip scientists with the confidence, skills and resources that they need to make the most of diverse communication opportunities. When getting ready for a big science announcement to the mass media, you may need to provide custom-made training to a small group of research leaders, for example helping them prepare for a press conference or potentially difficult media interview. At other times, you could be training larger groups of early-career scientist to motivate and equip them for public communication about their work.
“There are pockets of important knowledge, expertise and networks in university research and media offices. Close collaboration between these units within our university is helping communicators to gain a deeper understanding of the processes embedded in research, resulting in a more strategic approach to the way we communicate and share research findings and milestones.” Carolyn Newton, communication and marketing manager: research, University of Cape Town
Do you recognise yourself in most of these roles, or do you feel somewhat overwhelmed by the multiple roles of a research communicator outlined here?
Which of these roles are most relevant and important in your job?
Are there some important roles that are currently neglected?
How could you re-focus your position (or team) to make sure that you include the most important roles adequately?
“There can be no compromise on communicating major science stories, even in times of crisis, as research is the lifeblood of the University. Without new knowledge, and new ideas, there would be no academy, and indeed no advance of the public good.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
“Every faculty or college should have a dedicated research communication officer to facilitate dissemination activities and make sure the research becomes visible and accessible.” Dr Agnes Ngale Lyonga, research administrator at the University of Buea, Cameroon