Communicating the results of your work effectively is more than just a matter of tweets and press releases. It involves a clear plan that defines your goals, audiences, and messages and considers what opportunities and barriers might lie in the way. Your aim should be catching the right people’s attention – who really needs to know about your new research or tool, who is important to helping you achieve your goals, and how can you best engage them?
These guidelines are intended to help your team or program strategically communicate its products, increasing the chances of achieving the impacts you want. You may have limited time to spend on communications, but developing even a simple plan can help you get the most bang for your buck.
Accompanying this guide is a worksheet to guide you through designing your plan.
Some considerations to keep in mind from the start:
- Start thinking about your communications early. Effective communication is not an afterthought.
- Never lose sight of the “so what.” Why would or should people care about your research?
- Collect photos and other images throughout the research process. Collect caption and credit information at the same time as you gather the photos and keep track of it, ideally within the same file as the image.
- Be mindful of and honest about your capacity. Videos always seem like great ideas, but they can take a lot of work and money to do well.
What’s included in a communications plan?
Goals (why you communicate)
Developing clear goals is an important first step in any communications plan. Do you want to inform or improve policy or decisions? Do you want to change or deepen the conversation? Do you want to empower people to adopt certain practices? Be honest and specific about what you are trying to achieve – and keep in mind, providing more information or knowledge is rarely sufficient to achieve change.
Ask yourselves the following questions:
- What is the overall goal we want to achieve?
- What tangible outcomes do we hope to achieve through our communications?
- What measures of success do we most care about?
Audiences (to whom you communicate)
Identify the top 1-2 audiences you need to engage to meet your goals:
- Who makes the relevant decisions?
- Whose knowledge, attitude, or behavior must be changed in order to meet your goal?
Messages (what you communicate)
A consistent set of talking points serves as the starting point for your communications and can be fleshed out with different examples and tailored to the needs of specific channels. Try to get input from several team members on a set of statements and themes that convey the main points you want to communicate about your research.
Here are some overall guiding principles for your messages:
- Be brief, clear, and avoid scientific jargon
- Be specific about the “so what” of your research, especially in terms of what your target audience cares about or values
- Be mindful of the tone you convey. If your research involves a controversial topic, be mindful that people process information through their own belief filters and may understand your message differently than you intend. Try to anticipate or research what beliefs or opinions may be associated with your issue and frame your messages accordingly.
- Less is more. Prioritize just a few key messages.
- A helpful exercise for designing your main message(s) in a clear and concise way is to consider this: if a news outlet were to cover your study, what would be your ideal headline for their article?
Tactics and channels (how you communicate)
Allow your goals and audience(s) to determine your tactics and adjust according to your capacity, budget and resources – even your reputation with your key audiences. The following list of potential tactics includes details and considerations to help you determine which are right for you. Keep in mind that some tactics are most effective in combination (for example, press releases and social media).
Good for: Studies of interest to a broad audience, with a timely hook, or that have “newsworthy” implications. Communications contacts at your home institution or at the LTER Network Communications Office can offer perspective on the news value of a pending publication.
Recommended approach: The primary author’s institution should spearhead the press release’s creation, and supporting institutions can repurpose it. Work with your press team to determine whether to disseminate it broadly or to target specialty outlets. While the lead institution should have primary responsibility for dissemination and posting to news services like EurekAlert, all involved institutions can help with media outreach, especially if there are personal contacts with reporters among your team.
Please advise your institution’s media relations personnel to contact NSF media relations (Cheryl Dybas, email@example.com) and the LTER Network Communications Office (Marty Downs, firstname.lastname@example.org) well in advance of publication release.
Other considerations: Regardless of who leads the press release effort, please be sure the final publication and press release properly acknowledges LTER support, by including the LTER site and grant number in the funding acknowledgements. For LTER synthesis working groups, use: LTER Network Communications Office, DEB#1545288, 10/1/2015-9/30/19.
Blog posts or commentaries
Good for: Studies that have a specialized audience, have an interesting or provocative angle that authors want to highlight, or aren’t newsworthy enough for a press release but still provide important or useful information to your target audiences
Recommended approach: If you or your working group has a blog, that is a great place to start, but consider shaping the post in the style of a blog with a larger audience and approaching them to guest-post or cross-post. Depending on the content and audience, some possibilities include: ESA’s Ecotone, The Conversation, Ensia, NatGeo Environment, NatGeo Science, The Atlantic, Smithsonian Science and Nature.
LTER Science Update
- Good for: Recent articles, conferences, and events of broad interest to the ecological community
- Recommended Approach: The LTER Network Communications Office receives Web of Science Alerts for publications with LTER funding acknowledgements, but if you have a particularly interesting report, special issue, event, or group of papers coming out within a few months, please reach out to Marty Downs (email@example.com) at the LTER Network Communications Office to help us plan ahead.
Other newsletter announcements
- Good for: Studies or tools that have a specific audience whose attention you really want to get or whose work could be impacted by your research/tool
- Recommended approach: Determine which organizations or associations have a newsletter or listserv that would reach your target audience and contact their communications lead to inquire about placing a short announcement or article about your study/tool in it. Often the organization will want a pre-written announcement. While they may have specific guidelines for you, the piece should be short – i.e., 2-4 concise paragraphs explaining the “what,” “so what,” and “how can I learn more.”
- Good for: Promoting any new study or tool to your social and professional networks. This is a low-hanging-fruit way to get the word out, especially to your followers and people with similar interests.
- Recommended approach: Twitter and Facebook are the most popular platforms for the research community.
- Working with the LTER Network Communications Office team: We can help you promote your study or tool via Twitter and/or Facebook. Our handles are @uslter for Twitter and for Facebook. Consider tagging us in your posts.
- Other considerations: Consider hosting a Facebook Live event to talk about your research on live video. Alert the LTER NCO for help with promotion and (depending on other demands) coordination.
- Good for: Studies or tools with an interesting story embedded within the larger context of the issue you are studying; series or combinations of studies where the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
- Recommended approach: You could pitch an article yourself to a relevant academic magazine, such as The Conversation, Solutions Journal, or Scientific American, or to a reporter you have worked before — or you could work with the LTER Network Communications Office to pitch an idea directly to a journalist.
- Working with the LTER Communications Office: We may be able to help with pitching and can certainly promote the resulting story via social media.
Multimedia product (e.g., video, podcast, StoryMap, infographic, or data visualization)
- Good for: Studies or tools with strong visuals that can convey a clear and compelling message or that have a strong narrative behind them. These methods can be good for reaching new or non-technical audiences, and are highly shareable on social media.
- Recommended approach: Be clear about the main message you want to convey in whichever form of media you pursue. Your main message and your target audience will help you determine which type of product is most appropriate to create.
These projects can be worthwhile, but are time and labor-intensive, so start early and plan on it taking longer than you expect. Think about what your audience expects when deciding whether to produce in-house or through a professional shop.
- Working with the LTER Network Communications Office: For products with a clear Network-level message, the NCO may be able to help. For site-focused products, we may be able to recommend local communications professionals to help. Contact us to discuss your ideas.
- Other considerations: Consider engaging advanced students in creating a research-oriented multimedia project, such as a StoryMap or Shiny app data visualization.
Fact sheets or one-pagers
- Good for: Engaging a specific group of stakeholders who have decision-making influence; getting your research into the hands of decision makers.
- Recommended approach: Decide on the key messages that are most relevant to the specific audience. Include strong visuals that move the message forward and guide the reader through the content. Don’t crowd the page with text, these documents are meant to be scanned. DO NOT exceed a single page.
- Discuss a distribution plan early and allow it to steer your content development. Identify key events (workshops, conferences, national or international meetings, key anniversaries) that can serve as a focus for distribution and media coverage.
Email your peers
Don’t be shy about sharing your new paper or tool with your professional network – word of mouth is often one of the best forms of promotion. Your message doesn’t need to be complicated. A concise and to-the-point email is all you really need. And remember to mention that your working group benefitted from LTER NCO support.
Pitching to Journalists
In general, we advise that you work with your institution’s media relations office to pitch stories to journalists. To craft a winning pitch, they will need to know the following:
- What is your study’s main message (in non-technical terms)?
- When will it come out, in what outlet?
- Why is the study or product important?
- What is the “so what” of your study – i.e., what would make people care?
- What else about your study or product should we try to highlight in the pitch?
- What visuals could be incorporated in the story? Do you have permission to use them?
Communications Strategy Template
Product to be communicated (e.g., publication):
Product lead and institution (e.g., lead author):
Other involved institutions:
Goals and Audience(s)
Communications goals: The main goal(s) we want to achieve through our communications efforts is…
Audience: To achieve our goals, the people we must influence are…
Outcomes: To achieve our goals, we must motivate our audience to…
Why should your audience care about this result or activity – what is the “so what”?
What are the (3) key messages related to this study, report, or activity?
What kinds of examples or analogies support those messages?
Are there technical terms or jargon must be defined, clarified, or avoided in your communications?
If a news outlet were to cover your study, what would be your ideal headline for their article?
The tactic(s) that would best help us reach our audience and accomplish our goal is…
Other team members:
Dates and deadlines: