What does a University press office do? As part of Marketing, Communications and Engagement (MCE), there is sometimes a misunderstanding that communications at a university is only about recruiting students. While that is important, most of what MCE does is much broader than just appealing to prospective undergraduates. Pete Castle, from the University’s press office, reflects on the support academics can get to help them communicate about their work.
Communicating research is a vital part of any academic’s role. Whether it is to help the advancement of your field of study, to find collaborators, funding, profile, or just fundamentally to do better work, academia is all about communication.
So why do academics need help communicating research? And what kind of help is available at the University of Reading?
Press and media
The traditional press office functions – of writing press releases, organising interviews, and talking to journalists – may seem outdated in today’s digital age. But they are still an important part of any university press office’s role.
Granted, changes in technology and society mean the way people access information has altered hugely in recent years. Yet mainstream media still plays a big part in setting social, political and economic agendas – not to mention continuing the Reithian principles (set a century ago) of education, information and entertainment.
A 2019 government survey shows that mainstream media – including TV, radio and print and online news – were still the primary source of information for most people in the UK about science. I’d guess that the pandemic and the sudden news focus on vaccines and viruses has likely increased this. While sources of information specific to social sciences, business, humanities and arts will all differ slightly, the continued relevance of ‘traditional’ media is likely to be reflected there too.
As such, the support of a press office is still vital for the communication of research, in my opinion – and still an important focus at Reading. Yes, social media has opened up many more routes for researchers to an audience than once existed – but the advice of a skilled and sympathetic press officer who understands the needs, pressures and timing of journalism can be a great help.
That’s why we still spend a lot of time helping researchers to publicise their work and expertise through the media. It can be a daunting and sometimes even scary place for anyone to be, so we’re here to help you through and make the most of it.
Digital and social media
Even pre-pandemic, more of our lives was shifting online, and communicating research has been no exception. With the pace of change, new platforms continuously appearing (and disappearing), and a whole new set of skills to learn, academics could be forgiven for not knowing where to start. That’s why we work with academic colleagues to help guide them through all the different options, skills and approaches.
Of course, effective online communication still requires the same level of planning and targeting as any other comms. Just being on Twitter or TikTok doesn’t mean anything, without knowing why, with whom and how you are communicating. MCE includes social media and digital comms specialists help to guide academics through the distractions and pitfalls, and help you to pick the right tools to help you achieve your goals.
Public affairs and policy
Research impact can often involve engagement with policymakers or interest groups. And while some researchers often need no help in talking to such groups, academics can benefit greatly from having some assistance engaging with governments, parliament, NGOs and others.
External communication requires you to define your audience in much broader terms than just ‘press’, or ‘the local community’, or ‘industry’, for example. With communication channels increasingly crossing over and converging, researchers can find themselves seemingly talking in similar ways to different audiences. Yet it is important to remember that these groups are not all alike. You are entering a series of different world, each with its own language and rules.
This is something MCE is increasingly involved in, helping the University and individuals to engage positively and effectively with businesses, policy, and interest groups. This helps with our institutional aims to be ‘an engaged university’ and to help individual academics and groups achieve specific things. It helps to be able to get advice on how to draft a briefing note, submit evidence to a parliamentary select committee, or approach a minister.
Communicate to succeed
As our colleague Dr Deepa Senapathi has highlighted, research increasingly requires academics to leave their comfort zone and learn to ‘speak different languages’.
The most successful research communication is done by people who are willing to try different things and put themselves into uncomfortable situations. Our role, as professional support teams, is to help provide you with some of the translation, background and skills to succeed.
There are a number of examples of how this has worked at Reading in the last year – some of which are included in our Reading in the News 2020 annual report, which highlights the quality, quantity and scope of the University’s media engagement strategy.
If you’d like to know more about research communication then please get in touch with the RCE team. As well as being your first point of call for advice on communicating research beyond academia, the RCE team provides tools such as easy-to-create research websites, and several Top Tips guides on the topics we discussed in the during the REF showcase event – from how to network successfully, stakeholder mapping, writing for non-academic audiences, and to how to make the most of Twitter.
Pete Castle is External Communications & Public Relations Manager in the Marketing, Communications and Engagement function.