By James Tout on 29 March 2019
Cutting through Brexit: How universities can show impact from research in the toughest media climate
Can you remember a time before Brexit? Nearly three years on from the referendum, it can seem hard to recall an era when the dreaded ‘B’ word wasn’t dominating the national narrative.
For the PR and communications industry this has been a particular challenge given our role in influencing public debate. For media relations specialists, Brexit has preoccupied commentators so comprehensively that it’s simply squeezed out space for anything else. But it runs deeper than that. Because the outcome is potentially so seismic, Brexit poses a profound existential question for our national destiny few have experienced before. So it can make other topics – even important social issues – seem like small beer by comparison.
So how to get your voice heard over the cacophony? For universities and researchers, this is a live concern given the emphasis these days on the need to show ‘impact’ from their work in submissions for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a critical decider of future funding.
The good news is, it is possible to get cut-through even in this most challenging (and, lord knows, repetitive) media environment. Here are a few pointers from our successes with universities and research organisations in recent months:
- A good story is a good story
It may sound simplistic, but it’s the truth. There’s always space for a strong story. But what is it that will push something ‘over the line’ amid the political noise? At Journalista, we always tell clients that the three key ingredients of people, controversy and numbers/data will get you a long way towards the goal (combined with a little PR wizardry, natch).
For instance, we recently worked with our client Aston University to explain the findings of some academic research on the addictiveness of smartphone gambling. Our news release highlighted how the ubiquity of smartphones means that addiction-prone people have far easier access than ever before to games that can empty their wallets (people). In telling the story of a fairly dry experiment, we were also able to pull out a gem of a stat – that one participant carried on playing a simulated smartphone gambling game 177 times after they could no longer win any money! (numbers/data). And finally, by contrasting the lack of regulation of smartphone gambling with a government crackdown on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), we were able to inject some controversy into the story, garnering front page coverage in the Daily Telegraph, as well as print and online pieces in the Daily Mail and Guardian and TV coverage on ITV’s Good Morning Britain (below).
- Make it visual
It isn’t always possible with academic research, but if you’re thinking of TV coverage it’s essential to get a strong visual for the piece. Try to visualise in your mind’s eye how you’d want video of your research to look: what’s the most arresting or unusual (moving) picture that illustrates what you’ve done?
One story for Aston University provided some unlikely possibilities. Dr Richard Martin’s development of cobalt-infused glass that was able to kill deadly bacteria like E.coli was fascinating anyway. But the fact he used a medieval stained glassmaking technique to create the material – complete with a blast furnace heated to 1,500 degrees – gave us the quirky hook that generated BBC TV coverage, as well as follow-up web video on Reuters and a story on the BBC News website’s health page.
- What’s the human angle?
Let’s face it. A lot of academic research can seem pretty dry on first reading. While academics are rightly concerned with ensuring their research data is robust enough to meet the exacting standards of peers and journal editors, the media wants a story – and preferably one that has clear relevance to audiences. A key way to do this is to find a human face that encapsulates the research.
Recently, our client the Enterprise Research Centre published findings from an important study on the resilience of businesses in London. One key finding was that ethnic minority business owners were significantly more likely to experience adverse events that impacted the viability of their firms. To bring this to life, we highlighted the example of Joseph Salama, a garage owner from an Egyptian background who had brought his business back from the brink following the Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017. This powerful and unusual story provided a perfect narrative that caught the attention of The Times.
- Work with the news environment you’re given
For comms professionals like us, Brexit has been something of a double-edged sword. While it’s undoubtedly taken attention away from other things, if you’ve got something to say that can contribute to the political and economic debate, you’re on to a winner.
This was the case for a fascinating study of job creation and destruction in the economy published recently by the Enterprise Research Centre. By ‘looking under the hood’ at what’s been happening in the private sector, we were able to show that the so-called ‘employment miracle’ the UK has seen in recent years could be built on shaky foundations, with established firms actually seeing a net loss of jobs as Brexit approached. This fresh angle on the economic story surrounding Brexit was picked up by Reuters, a key outlet for business leaders and policymakers.
- …But remember that life goes on
Even if you can’t – or don’t want to – get drawn into the Brexit debate, there are still ways to get out there. Sometimes this simply comes down to finding the right outlet for your story or viewpoint.
A thought leadership piece we developed with the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity’s director, Professor Henrietta Moore, focused on recent league table-style reports that attempted to rank countries on their levels of prosperity. Professor Moore’s argument – that this was false comfort as all states strive towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – may not have been the right fit for newspapers obsessed with the latest twists in the Brexit story, but found the perfect home in the Guardian’s Global Development section.
The key take-away? That even when ‘mainstream’ media outlets are preoccupied with hard news stories and the chatter that surrounds them, there’s still scope to talk about something off-diary that’s important if you can find the right hook.