Module 1: Impact and the media
Imagine what might be possible if you could harness the collective wisdom of the world’s most intelligent people to tackle the challenges facing the world today. You could do amazing things. Imagine if your press office could contribute towards, rather than just communicate those great ideas. This toolkit will enable you to work with researchers and your University’s impact team to help deepen and widen the benefits arising from research, and become an increasingly valuable part of your institution’s strategic mission to deliver impact.
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a major strategic driver of investment and activity in the UK Higher Education sector. Research impact accounts for 25% of the scores (and hence funding from Research England) that institutions receive in REF2021, with most commentators expecting the weighting to increase in the subsequent assessment period. However, press offices rarely engage directly with researchers to plan their impact, until they are ready to communicate their findings to the media. As a result, media opportunities are often missed or poorly targeted for generating impact, and there are limited opportunities to collect evidence of the ultimate impacts that arose from the coverage.
More concerning are reports of impact teams and consultants advising researchers against engaging with the media because press coverage is “only” a pathway to impact, and not evidence of actual impact that will count for REF. As a result, the impact agenda may make it harder than it already is to motivate researchers to engage with your press team.
 Comments made by members of The Conversation’s Media Advisory Group, July 2019
Structure of the Toolkit
The rest of this first module of the toolkit outlines the challenges posed by the impact agenda for press offices and provides examples of significant impacts that can arise from media engagement, illustrated with case studies.
The second module explains the difference between engagement and impact, to help you understand why media engagement is increasingly being identified as a distraction from impact, and to find out how you can reshape and reframe your contribution to be central to the impact generation process.
The third module considers how to evaluate impacts from media engagement, considering three broad approaches to generating evidence for the significance of impacts arising from media.
Each module integrates a range of tools and templates, with video content and case studies. There is a quiz at the end of each module to test what you learned.
The material is based on a combination of literature and the experience of UK press office, professional services and research staff. These insights are based on a survey administered by Fast Track Impact and The Conversation in December 2019, leading to 80 responses (31 press office, 26 professional services, and 23 academics). While this is a small sample for the quantitative answers, the majority of the survey was open-ended qualitative data and analysed thematically, providing a rich source of insights to guide more effective impact activity for press teams, as they work with academics and impact colleagues from professional services.
Challenges from the impact agenda for press offices
While press offices might appear well-positioned to contribute to the impact agenda, given their role in outreach and their reach, there are a number of challenges that limit the contribution press offices can make. Most survey respondents thought media engagement was very or extremely important for generating impact (80% of press officers, 70% of professional services impact staff and 100% of researchers). However, there was widespread awareness of the challenges of media engagement as a pathway to REF-eligible impact among press office staff.
of press officers
of professional impact staff
The key reason given was the difficulty of demonstrating the significance of benefits for audiences, which may reflect their knowledge of REF rules around impact (most press office staff said that they knew a moderate amount (47%) or a lot (33%) about the role of impact in REF, with 7% saying they knew a great deal). The awareness of challenges was shared by professional services staff working on impact, but the majority of researchers responding to the survey seemed less aware of the challenges. Indeed, when asked to provide examples of significant impacts that could arise from media engagement, almost all the examples cited by researchers were pathways to impact (such as opportunities for further research or media engagement – see below), and only one respondent was able to suggest sources of evidence that could demonstrate the significance of media impacts.
47% knew a
knew a lot
a great deal
One researcher commented, “I'm not sure that they are invested in [impact]. Certainly in my institution, I think the media office is more focussed on getting branded stuff out to attract future students. There is a need in this context for a culture change to help make the media office more aware of why they might connect with researchers”. Other challenges related to the way the media operates, the focus of media engagement on reach rather than the significance of impacts, poor targeting of audiences who could benefit or facilitate impacts, and challenges arising from press offices or researchers themselves (Table 1).
The performance indicators typically used by press offices do not provide the kind of evidence needed to demonstrate impact for REF, which focuses on longer-term, wider benefits arising from media coverage. Circulation and viewing figures provide evidence of reach, but without evidence that there were significant benefits for those who engaged with the material, this reach has very limited value in the Research Excellence Framework.
Impact claims based on reach alone are open to the critique that those who engaged may not have understood, acted on or benefited in other ways from what they learned, and so there may be no lasting impact from the work, no matter how impressive the coverage was at the time. As such, media coverage is typically seen only as a “pathway” to impact, rather than as an impact in its own right.
Table 1: Challenges that may prevent media leading to impact
The way the media operates
Reach over significance
Challenges arising from press ofiices
Challenges arising from researchers
Lack of relevance for REF due to issues generating or evidencing significant impacts (Table 1) was one of a number of reasons some 22% of professional services staff and 43% of researchers had at some point advised colleagues not to engage with media. Other reasons included concerns that: the researcher was too early in the research cycle to provide a robust message; the researcher may not have sufficient confidence or a strong grasp of the subject matter; and the research was controversial or sensitive and could have led to negative impacts or compromised future research (e.g. by losing access to the country)
Significant impacts that can arise from media management
Respondents were asked to describe significant impacts that can arise from media engagement, but the majority of answers described pathways to impact (engagement) rather than actual benefits (impacts). These included the generation of additional media or funding opportunities, new contacts with stakeholder organisations, new research collaborations (often with stakeholders), raised public profile for researchers and institutions, and improved student and researcher recruitment. One researcher suggested, “[Media engagement] gives you short, accessible publications to hand when you need to send someone something on a topic e.g. a practitioner asks for your views on something. Do you send them your peer-reviewed article, or do you send them a short newspaper article summarising your views/work?”.
Some significant impacts were identified however from media engagement. These included:
Uptake of research by stakeholder organisations (sometimes including co-funding for researchers via consultancy), leading to benefits for them or their clients, patients or others, for example applying findings in new operational contexts, developing new products, treatments or services, or increasing charitable donations
Changes in public awareness, attitudes or behaviours, for example leading to museum visits or talking to their doctor about a new treatment option
Influencing public policy by raising awareness of research among politicians or civil servants, or by making the researcher more visible and hence more likely to be invited to sit on or provide evidence to committees that guide policy. For example, one researcher responded, “At our institution, one academic did a huge amount of media after a particular incident relating to his research. As a result, the university was contacted by policymakers in this field who wanted to learn more about the research in question.”