Academia, comms and impact: no laughing matter

Posted by Martin Stott

There’s an old joke about an exasperated sports coach and an underperforming player. Having suffered months of defeats, disappointments, mounting frustration and suppressed fury, the pair finally clash at the end of another crushing loss in which the player has once again failed to shine.

No longer able to contain his rage, the coach grabs his charge by the shoulders. “I just don’t get it,” he yells. “What the hell’s wrong with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?”

The player stares blankly at the turf and shakes his head. “Coach,” he says, “I don’t know – and I don’t care.”

For years some would argue that ignorance and apathy cursed academia’s approach to strategic communications. The perception was that many researchers, not necessarily through any fault of their own, didn’t know or care about the benefits of reaching out beyond their immediate peers. Erroneous and destructive stereotypes reigned: academics as ivory tower dwellers, “PR people” as sharp-suited, gibberish-spewing, flesh-pressing charlatans.

Neither characterisation was ever entirely accurate. Most academics aren’t quasi-Carthusians whose travails rarely penetrate their own four walls, and most “PR people” aren’t the pinstriped quintessence of Adorno and Horkheimer’s predicted slide into “a new kind of barbarism”. Today, thankfully, such caricatures seem all but redundant.

Not least in recent years, what scholar and communications strategist alike have come to realise is that research across all disciplines has a truly huge role to play in guiding public policy, driving the economy and enriching our understanding of society. Both have come to accept, too, that it can’t fulfil that role if it isn’t conveyed to the right audiences and in a language they understand. The landscape of academia is changing dramatically, and attitudes are changing with it.

Just how dramatic is that change? Well, let’s try to compare academic life today to academic life 10 years ago.

Who could have predicted an era in which impact would be not just a basic determinant of success and sustainability but a day-to-day factor in research activities? Who could have foreseen the groundswell and subsequent power of blogs, forums and other social media? Who could have envisaged an age in which scholars would happily distil their work into 140 characters? Who could have dreamed that the significance of a one-line tweet might one day (on occasion) be greater than that of a 20,000-word journal article? Amazing; and now imagine where we might find ourselves in another 10 years’ time.

In the sphere of strategic communications, too, the speed and scale of the transformation are astonishing. Many concepts that were cutting-edge when the impact agenda first surfaced now seem positively ancient. Fuelled by the nascent trend for training academics to appear before Select Committees or to meet senior politicians, the dominion of public affairs is much more to the fore. Maybe most strikingly, few projects would now be undertaken without recourse to social media. Making optimum use of LinkedIn, Facebook, databases, mobiles, tablets and apps is now essential.

The twists and turns can be relentless. They’re often daunting for all concerned. But that’s all part of the challenge – and even part of the fun.

Some researchers are still afraid of strategic communications and what it can do for them. They have more to fear from rejecting it.

Perceptions of academics need to change, and so do perceptions of consultants like us. So please don’t share this next joke:

A strategic communications consultant dies and goes to heaven (but of course). St Peter meets him at the pearly gates.

“Look,” says the consultant, “I think there’s been a mistake. I’m too young to die. I’m only 45.”

St Peter leafs through his notes and smiles serenely. “I think not,” he says. “According to our calculations, you’re 83.”

“What? How did you work that out?”

St Peter shrugs. “We added up your timesheets.”

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