Saturday, January 4, 2014

How to generate buzz about research

One of the most common activities I engage in as a scientist and communications practitioner is working to "generate buzz" about the research work I either participate in or that the various organizations I've worked for fund or are otherwise engaged in. Since I have yet to write about much of the practical work that I do, I'm trying it just to see how it goes, and maybe it will be useful for some.

I want to get to the "how to" quickly, so if you are interested in how I know anything about this topic, see the ** paragraph at the bottom of the post. Let's just say that over the years I've had some hits and misses to be sure, have learned a lot, and, yes, rely on intuition quite a bit.

One thing I do think is important to say upfront though is that I am talking specifically about getting attention around a research project or paper and not actual change-making in the world. Those two things (along with more nuanced versions of similar verbiage) are often conflated, and while in rare cases they may coalesce, my experience is that it's infrequent without tremendous investment of people and dollars. With that caveat, here are some steps to getting your research "out there."

1. Create a spectrum of materials based on your work: Let's say you're about to have a great new research paper come out. Then let's face that fact that very few people are going to read said paper, and of those very few people, most will be other researchers. To let anybody else to know about it, the most fundamental thing you can do is create a variety of materials that the people that you want to be familiar with your work are most likely to read.

This spectrum might look something like research paper => one page summary of paper (here's a recent example) => media release or advisory => blog post => tweet. Interesting variations include op-ed articles, policy briefs, and executive summaries, maybe throwing in a little Pinterest or Facebook (updated to include video as suggested in the comments below!). You get the picture. The beauty of the whole thing is that much of it can be a re-purposing of materials, though there is a real art and craft of going from a research paper to more easily digestible, contextualized versions of research materials. Professional writers and editors, public information officers, exceptional grad students, etc., can all be employed! Also, fear not multilingual communication, it's another step in the spectrum, and a place where radio or even text might be really helpful, depending on context.

2. Create some good graphics: This is probably part of step one above, but may require further creative intervention. If you are not a graphics wiz or don't have one hanging around, professional help can again be found. Increasingly, a great infographic is de rigueur, or at least extremely helpful, in buzz generation for science. One of my favorites that I've worked on was about shark life history characteristics (see inside spread for graphic). I am convinced that if you can make that topic interesting (in short, sharks are almost nothing like other fish, yet are managed like them, which is problematic), anything is possible!

3. Build relationships with journalists: Things have changed a ridiculous amount since I wrote my first science-related press release over 15 years ago. Just the fact that I am talking about press releases shows my age. At the same time, although the methods might have changed a bit, the basic thing is that it helps a real lot to have good relationships with journalists so that when you have something to say, or they need something from you, the groundwork is laid. Then, help them want to write about your work by giving them things like 1 and 2 above.

Again, there are people that can help - like a university or professional society public affairs or communications office. At the same time, social media has made it easier than ever to interact directly with journalists. Indeed, you might now interact with them via Twitter instead of a fax machine, but building relationships with the folks most likely to write about your research area is about knowing who they are to begin with, and letting them get to know you.

4. Build relationships with NGOs, professional societies, and others that work in your research area: Similar to journalists, building relationships with agency, NGO, and professional society staffs can help a huge amount in generating buzz about your work if it is of interest to said people. Find them at meetings, talk to them, send them interesting work. See 1-3 above.

5. Use social media: There have been a couple of good papers out there on the use of social media for scientists (and some articles debating its utility, e.g., here). My experience is that it can be really helpful, particularly if you've done the work on numbers 1-4 above, plus a little extra with the social media platforms themselves. When it comes to social media, relationships *may* be based more on your "brand" (e.g., the credibility of your institutional affiliation), or your connectivity with others, but they are necessary nonetheless. As I've written before, my sense is that people want to know who information is created by before they bother engaging with it. Even though I get exasperated with social media, there is no doubt it's been transformative in science communication.

I'm sure I'm missing some pieces here, and if anybody wants to add their favorite how-to's in the comments, please do. I want to stress again that these are all tips basically focused on generating attention for a particular piece of research. Sometime soon I'll start to tackle the how-to of moving from generating attention and toward change-making.

**My first real experience publicizing science was as a public affairs intern at the Ecological Society of America, and then full-time employee, many years ago. I spent a summer combing abstracts for the upcoming annual meeting, looking for things that might be of interest to journalists and then writing press releases and, if all went well, connecting researchers and science writers. It was a productive summer with a story on the American burying beetle covered in the New York Times science section (sadly the online version is not nearly as beautiful as the front page full-color illustrated paper version) and the first set of forced flooding in the Grand Canyon covered in Discover magazine. From that point, I was hooked and have gone on to do hopefully more sophisticated variations of that work for many years, increasingly being involved in developing the kinds of projects that will hopefully be of interest and use from the get-go.

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  1. Nice summary. You might want to add video to your list. If there are few or no videos online about your research topic, a video can put you on the first page of a google search.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and taking time to comment, Karen. You are totally right that video is important to add. Your website and blog look like great resources.