Belling the ‘Policy Cats’: How Can Communication Help? Talk to PEER Science Conference 2013

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at PEER Science Conference 2013 in Bangkok, 3 Oct 2013
Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at PEER Science Conference 2013 in Bangkok, 3 Oct 2013

How to ‘Bell’ the policy ‘cats’?

This question is often asked by researchers and activists who would like to influence various public policies. Everyone is looking for strategies and engagement methods.

The truth is, there is no one sure-fire way — it’s highly situation specific. Policy makers come in many forms and types, and gaining their attention depends on many variables such as a country’s political system, governance processes, level of bureaucracy and also timing.

Perfecting the finest ‘bells’ and coming across the most amiable and receptive ‘cats’ is an ideal rarely achieved. The rest of the time we have to improvise — and hope for the best.

Good research, credible analysis and their sound communication certainly increase chances of policy engagement and eventual influence.

How Can Communications Help in this process? This was the aspect I explored briefly in a presentation to the PEER Science Participants’ Conference 2013 held in Bangkok, Thailand, from 1 to 4 Oct 2013.

It brought together over 40 principal investigators and other senior researchers from over a dozen Asian countries who are participating in Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) Science program. PEER Science is a grant program implemented by the (US) National Academies of Science on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and in cooperation with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

I spoke from my professional experience and long involvement in public communication of research, especially through the media. I referred to key conclusions of the International workshop on Improving the impact of development research through better communication and uptake, held in London, UK, in November 2010 where I was a panelist.

I flagged some key findings of a global study by SciDev.Net (where I am an honorary trustee) which looked at the different contextual settings within which policymakers, the private sector, NGOs, media organisations and the research community operate to better understand how to mainstream more science and technology evidence for development and poverty reduction purposes.

I like show and tell. To illustrate many formats and approaches available, I shared some of my work with LIRNEasia and IWMI, two internationally active research organisations for which I have produced several short videos (through TVE Asia Pacific) communicating their research findings and policy recommendations.

PowerPoint (with video links embedded):

Connecting researchers and the media: Easy as A, B and C?

L to R - Gerd Shonwalder (IDRC Canada), Faye Reagon (HSRC South Africa), Nalaka Gunawardene, Ann Waters-Bayer (ETC Netherlands) & Eliya Zulu (AIDP, Kenya)

What needs to be done to improve connections between researchers and the media?

This was the first of three questions posed to me as a panel member during the International workshop on Improving the impact of development research through better communication and uptake, held at the Institute of Civil Engineers, London, UK, on 29 and 30 November 2010.

The workshop, organised by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Australian Government Aid Programme (AusAid), brought together close to 100 research managers, science communicators and development donors from all regions of the world.

As always, I spoke from a practitioner’s perspective. Our panel was asked to discuss ‘different ways of making the links between research, policy and practice’. Each panel member was allowed 5 – 6 minutes of speaking time, with no PowerPoint or other visual aids.

I started off by flagging two fairly self-evident yet important points:
• Media is a PLURAL – there is no single recipe that works for all media because it is such a diverse sector!
• Media is only a SUB-SET of a wider process of communicating for social change.

Within this, there is always room for improvement! As a science journalist, I am a ‘critical cheerleader’ of researchers and their institutes. From that point of view, there are 3 elements that we need more of.
I call them A, B and C.

A is for Access: Today, 24/7 news cycles dominate the media landscape. That means, more often than not, journalists need quick and easy access to researchers, and rapid (or ‘live’) responses to breaking stories. Ideally, journalists want to talk to the researchers themselves, and not PR people or administrators within research institutes or universities.

B is for Bridges: To enable good access, we need strong and reliable links between researchers and the media. That can take many forms. They may be physical or virtual – including events, online platforms, and other activities. I see them as ‘Intersections’ where research, media and policy communities come together. These help share information, but also nurture trust –- that precious and rare virtue!

C is for Credibility: We’ve already heard how critical this element is to all our work as researchers and journalists. Credibility is something hard to earn, easy to lose. We can’t buy it – but good, long-term investments in people can help consolidate it.

I argued that these A, B and C can certainly help improve connections between researchers and the media, and ultimately, with the wider public.

London workshop panel, 29 Nov 2010

Why can’t researchers just pay the media to cover their work?

WCSJ London
“Why can’t researchers pay media to cover their work?”

This was the question asked by one African editor participating in the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London last week. He raised it during a luncheon session titled ‘Friendship or Friction: How the media relates to the research community’ organised by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

The question was asked in apparent sincerity and seriousness. Since media space/time is limited, and different groups and interests are competing to get in, he reasoned, why can’t research budgets include a legitimate allocation for buying newspaper space or radio/TV air time.

Luckily, good sense prevailed and the suggestion was gently cast aside by the moderator. Participants felt such a practice, if allowed, could seriously distort both the news values of media organisations and their public service brief. Listening to this exchange in the audience, I heaved a sigh of relief.

It’s true that many mainstream media organisations are struggling these days to stay in business. But resorting to selling their column inches or air time to the highest bidder would take them a whole different realm where advertising and public relations set the agenda.

This can cast a long and dubious shadow...
This can cast a long and dubious shadow...
This is the reverse of cheque-book journalism, where some media organisations pay celebrity or other sources for exclusive access to their stories. When development agencies are paying sections of the media to get promotional or favourable stories aired, we must call it ‘cheque-book development’.

In August 2007, I wrote an op ed essay on this concern, titled ‘Cheque-book Development’ Corrupting the Media?. It appeared in several websites, and was later reprinted in newspapers such as Nepali Times. I was reacting to a disturbing trend where development agencies were simply throwing money at the media to gain access for their (supposedly public interest) messages.

I wrote: “As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.

“Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ’embedded journalists’ — all at agency expense.

“In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.”

Read full essay: ‘Cheque-book Development’ Corrupting the Media?

I have long argued, and shown with results, that there is really no need for productive researchers to pay anything to have their work covered in the media. If all they want is to bring the essence of their analysis, findings and recommendations to the attention of public and policy makers, there are ways they can engage the media without paying. I’ve called this Hitch-hiking with the media.

If on the other hand, researchers or their institutions want ego-massaging, vanity-promoting kind of coverage, the media will be far less likely to provide that for free. Throwing money is then the only way forward, but beware: it’s a slippery slope…

See also:
1 December 2007: Moving images moving research…beyond academic circles
16 December 2007: Teleuse@BOP film launched at GK3 – Interactive Quiz – a novel format to communicate research

Read SciDev.Net’s blog post on the same session