Highlights from the final session of the Knowledge Exchange training series, facilitated by Rosalinda Quintieri and Hannah Murray, as part of the ESRC Collaboration Labs Programme, The University of Manchester.
The University of Manchester’s recent Times Higher Education ranking as the world’s number one university for action on sustainable development is a clear demonstration of the role of research in driving positive, socially responsible change in our local, national and global communities.
No matter how big or small the research project, there is always the potential for meaningful change. However, the ways in which research is shared, communicated and engaged with is critical to its ability to drive ’real world’ impact in economic, social or cultural fields beyond academia. Further to this, effective research communication and engagement can support researchers to raise their own academic profile; engage key stakeholders; evidence research impact and gain external recognition for their work.
In this workshop, we built on the ESRC Impact Toolkit to share the key steps, tools and best practice to help the Collaboration Labs researchers effectively communicate and promote the value of their knowledge exchange research partnerships.
In this blog, we’ll set out the key steps and some further reading to help anyone engaging in a knowledge exchange or research consultancy project to get started on a Communications strategic plan.
1. What are your communication objectives?
"Align communications with project’s objectives"
Your communications objectives should be distinct from your main project objectives, with a large focus on getting your research known and used among those who can benefit most from it. However, they should be aligned with your project's aims. When starting out, it helps to envision the ultimate aims of your research: Are you looking to inform? Inspire? Engage? Influence? Change behaviour?
Consider: Envisage the end-point: What might impact look like, and how might you achieve it? Ensure that the objectives of your impact strategy don't simply restate the objectives of the project itself.
Next steps: "Define a set of key objectives and ensure your key aims are clear, simple and measurable." - ESRC Impact Toolkit.
2. Define your audiences
"Who do you wish to speak to about your research?"
For any form of research communication, it is vital to know who you are speaking to, that is, who your key audiences are.
Consider not only your immediate KE partner but the broader network of stakeholders, beneficiaries and public audiences who might have an interest in the results of this research project.
In some cases, you may want to identify groups that you think are not (currently) interested in your research, who you would like to be interested, or who you think is important for other reasons e.g. they may be particularly influential or impacted.
- Try to narrow down your audiences to organisations, departments - you could even narrow this down further and focus on individuals, if possible.
- "Prioritise your target audiences and user groups according to their importance and influence relative to your objectives." - ESRC Impact Toolkit.
3. Refine your key messages
"Effective research engagement is a two-way process - an interaction."
Once you have identified your audiences, the next task is to break down your objectives into relevant messages for each of those audiences. Start with the audiences that are the highest priority.
Remember, effective research engagement is a two-way process - an interaction. Be sure to tailor your messages with the respective needs and interests of each of your audiences in mind.
The key message will vary for each audience depending upon i) their potential influence/ interest ii) your desired outcome. Some groups may be interested in just one aspect of your research e.g. your method or theory, or one research finding versus another depending on the outcome of your work. Likewise, your ask or ’call to action’ for each of these audiences will vary depending upon their work, interest or influence.
"Research is about the gathering and analysis of data; story is about organising and reviewing that data from different standpoints and cultural positions."
- Professor Bambo Soyinka, Professor of Story at Bath Spa University and Director, Paper Nations; Storytelling as a collaborative language for cultural exchange ; 23 March 2021.
Next steps: Make sure your messages are appropriate for each audience you want to engage: "Set out your key messages in clear, accessible language - audiences such as journalists and policymakers are overloaded with information and may not remember your messages if they are too complex."
- ESRC Impact Toolkit.
4. Finding the right format for your key messages
Think creatively about the ways you may share your research, and always consider: What makes a good story?
"A good story is:
simple: it doesn’t try to cover too many bases
short: no more than a minute long, easy to remember, no script needed
active: the story is about doing things
true: telling a true story is a chance to talk honestly about the organisation
told for a purpose...
Stories can help to move an organisation away from dry statements of policy, mission and values to painting vivid pictures in words which have real impact."
- The National Council for Voluntary Organisations; Telling Stories.
Consider: Take a look at how key findings of the research were effectively communicated to key audiences in these two Collaboration Labs media pieces:
- Cecilia Vidal and Artesia in The Conversation
- Charlotte Faucher and Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy in the Guardian.
5. Channels - engaging with your audiences
"Consider where your audiences tend to access information"
After refining your key audiences, it is important to consider where and how they tend to access information. When completing your Communication plan, consider the most appropriate ways (channels) to reach your target audience - for example through a newsletter or blog, or media coverage.
Consider: Plan around the necessary timings - It is best to get in touch with relevant parties early on, as these groups will be able to better plan for and support your research communications at the right time.
Next steps: Map the most effective channels to communicate with your audience - think about the channels that your audience will prefer and tend to use.
6. Finalise your Communication Plan
Draw up a Communication Plan that includes all the elements above, along with any wider activities you intend to carry out & be sure to factor in deadlines, key milestones, responsibilities, costs and measurement.
Consider: Be sure to consider the timeframes for activity at each stage of the project. In doing so, be aware of how your schedule fits in with other key events. You may be able to adjust your timetable to take advantage of these, such as media interest, a wider publication or a key external event.
"The amount of evaluation you do should be in proportion to the size of the project." - ESRC Impact Toolkit
A common approach to evaluation is the KAB model , where impact is measured on changes Knowledge, Attitude and/or Behaviour. For consultancy projects with a short time frame (like the Collaboration Labs research partnerships, who last 3 months), this approach may be a helpful basis for evaluation.
- How much effect might your activity have on the audience?
- How might your research shape knowledge, attitudes or behaviour, what might this look like, and what are the key steps to achieving this?
Find out more about the KAB model, and more ways to evaluate your research in the ESRC Impact Toolkit.