Plan for your impact (and how you will evidence it)
Lack of planning is one of the key reasons why media engagement fails to generate demonstrable impacts. There are two reasons for this:
1. Missed opportunities. Many researchers don’t identify media opportunities because they don’t have a structured plan for generating impact from their research that could have pre-identified points on their pathway to impact where media could have helped them generate benefits at scale for the people they want to reach. As a result, when opportunities do arise, researchers are ill-prepared to identify or exploit the leads that are generated, or convert them into measurable benefits they could claim as research impact. Researchers who are supported to develop a structured impact plan for their research are able to identify opportunities for media engagement in advance that they might otherwise miss, and identify specific steps that will take them from media engagement to measurable benefits for target groups.
2. Poor targeting for impact. Without clear impact goals, press offices may prioritise angles and outlets that do little to help generate targeted impacts. To address this, get researchers to tell you the ultimate benefits they want to achieve from their research, and for whom. As them to think about how media coverage might help them reach these people to achieve these goals. Based on the impact goals and beneficiaries identified by researchers, prioritise key messages and actions that could be embedded within stories, and identify the type and scope of outlets you will target.
Module 3: Planning for targeted impacts from media engagement
Planning for impact to avoid missed opportunities
Researchers need a plan to manufacture or identify the media opportunities that are most likely to deliver impacts for the groups that can most benefit from their research. Planning ahead also makes it easier to evidence whether your media engagement actually makes a difference or not.
Logic models are a fast and powerful way of planning for impact in ways you can evidence. By thinking ahead with a tool like the Fast Track Impact Planning Template, it is possible to identify things you would expect to see on the pathway to impact (milestones) and consider indicators of impact or other evidence that might show when expected benefits have been achieved.
There are three steps: 1) you need to identify impact goals; 2) then you need to design media activities that will achieve these goals for specific beneficiaries; and 3) you need to identify indicators to monitor impacts as they arise.
1. Identify impact goals for specific beneficiaries
The first step in this tool is to identify specific impact goals and the group that will benefit from the achievement of those impacts. An impact goal should always be a benefit. Based on that definition, reaching people, “dissemination” or social media metrics are not impact goals, because there is no way of knowing whether anyone who has been reached in these ways actually benefited as a result. For all you know, they may have been unable to understand what reached them, misunderstood it or been bored or offended by it. You need to engage with the media with a clear impact goal in mind, for example, you may want to:
Raise awareness about an important but little-known issue
Enable people to understand something or change their thinking about something important
Change opinions and attitudes that are limiting people or causing harm
Mobilise action or change behaviours in individuals or households
Influence decisions by people with power to affect broader positive change
2. Design media activities to reach those goals for those beneficiaries
Now you know what you are trying to achieve, it is possible to harness the media in very different ways that are specifically designed to deliver those outcomes. For example:
A researcher may turn down an opportunity for an interview with CNN International and spend the time writing a press release for Farmers Weekly if they need to raise the awareness of farmers about a threat, technology or action they can take based on your research
They might the nplan a workshop or open day for farmers and integrate that into their article to advertise the event and get greater engagement with the group
Alternatively, they might link the article to a new online toolkit or other resource that enables wider engagement with the group across the country
Then, they might use the coverage in Farmers Weekly as a route to get a speaking slot at the Royal Welsh Show
While they are there, they might arrange to do an interview with the Farmer’s Guardian at the show to get wider coverage across that community
While they are doing this, they might work with your press office team to get the coverage on social media, and target influential accounts who engage with large numbers of farmers and hashtags like #agrichat to get wider readership and funnel social media readers to your workshop/open day, online resource and show event
At each of the events and via your website, they might incentivise people to leave their contact details so they can follow up with them long-term to provide more benefits and ultimately be able to follow up with a short questionnaire to evidence their impact, all GDPR compliant
This highly targeted approach to media engagement stands in contrast to the usual approach which tends to maximise reach without being particularly sensitive to the audience. For example, research on desertification policy in Botswana may be targeted to UK and international media outlets to reach the largest possible readership, instead of focusing on getting into newspapers in Botswana (which have much smaller circulations) as part of a wider strategy to influence Government country in that country. Altneratively, research that led to a new scheme for UK arable farmers to get private investment in sustainable agriculture techniques that lock up more carbon in their soil might make it into the Guardian newspaper. However, despite being of interest to Guardian readers it would have done little to promote the scheme to the key target audience, farmers. This group might have been reached more effectively with a targeted campaign to get coverage in Farmer’s Weekly and Farmer’s Guardian, coupled with a social media campaign on Twitter using the #agrichat hashtag.
Having said that, there is still a role for media opportunities that get you significant coverage, as the more prominent the coverage the more likely you are to include your target groups. You are also like to reach additional groups that you may not previously have been aware were interested in the research. This can be an important way of extending the reach of benefits from research. However, researchers have to be ready to walk through the doors that open to you after a major media opportunity, so it is important to make sure that they are easily discoverable via a Google search and have time in their schedule to follow up with the opportunities as they arise.
3. Identify indicators you can use to evidence impact
Evaluation is built into the Fast Track Impact impact planning template. As you consider what impacts you want to see (point 1 above), and the kind of media engagement you’ll need to get those impacts (point 2 above), you need to consider how you’ll know if the media engagement is working, and whether or not it is generating the benefits you’re aiming for. Press offices have significant expertise in collecting data on the reach of media engagement, including circulation and viewing figures, and social media metrics. Increasingly there are a range of other altmetrics that you can get around media engagement that will tell you more about the number and types of people who are talking about the work, and where they come from. These kinds of metrics can be a useful starting point for evaluating the significance of impacts arising from media engagement. However, in isolation all this data really tells you about is reach.
This is a key weakness of traditional media monitoring, because without evidence of any benefit for the millions of people that were reached, it is difficult to argue that there is in fact any impact if you use technical definitions of impact (e.g. from REF) or academic definitions of impact, which all emphasise the significance of benefits as well as their reach. Based on the points above, you have now created a plan that uses media engagement in a much more targeted way. Now, you just need to make sure you can measure the significance of those benefits in addition to their reach.
The logic model approach makes this easy, because it asks you to identify indicators of success, which do not require any specialist expertise. If your impact goal is to change people’s awareness of the benefits of maggot therapy and shift attitudes to reduce levels of disgust and increase the likelihood that a patient might accept the treatment on the NHS, then you know exactly what you are looking for as an indicator of impact. In this case, you would expect a sample of people exposed to your media coverage to have different levels of awareness and changed attitudes before and after engaging with the coverage, and you would then ultimately expect to see an increase in uptake of the therapy in hospitals. Developing indicators like this does not require any social science expertise – just common sense. Ask yourself what success would look like, and then ask how you might be able to evaluate that. In some cases there might be things you would be able to quantify, and in other cases you might expect people to say certain things qualitatively if your work had made a difference to them. What methods would you then need to collect that data?
Targeting media engagement for impact
Most press officers are familiar with audience segmentation techniques, but to generate impact you can take this a step further with a publics/stakeholder analysis. This will give you a sophisticated and holistic understanding of those you may want to engage with, and help prioritise the limited time available for impact. You can use the analysis to identify the top people, organisations or groups that are most important for you to prioritise. There's no one right way to prioritise those you engage with - instead, the tool empowers you to make that choice for your own, clear reasons (so you can explain why you haven't got to a particular group yet if asked). While it is easiest to think of "beneficiaries", this tool will also get you to think about whether there might also be groups who may be disadvantaged or harmed in some way as a result of the research, so you can consider how to reduce those negative impacts. Most people focus on individuals, groups or organisations, but you can also use the tool to think about future generations and non-human beneficiaries.
To get started, download the Word template or print the PDF version. You can use this individually, or you can use it to structure a discussion with colleagues. You can even invite a few colleagues and/or stakeholders to discuss this in a workshop setting, transferring the template onto the walls of the room using flip-chart paper and marker pens. There are three questions you need to ask any stakeholder/publics analysis…
Question 1: Who is interested in the research?
The first question you need to ask is who might be interested in the research. They can just be a little bit interested, and they can be interested in just one aspect of the research (e.g. the method or theory, or one research finding versus another depending on the outcome of your work). In some cases you may want to identify groups that you think are not (currently) interested in the research, who you would like to be interested, or who you think are important for other reasons (e.g. they may be particularly influential or impacted - see the following questions). Any organisation (or individual or group) may be interested in many different things - your task is simply to list those interest that coincide with key aspects of the research.
Write the name of each public/stakeholder you think may be interested in the first column of the template, describing the nature of their interest in the third column. To help you think critically about the nature and level of their interest, the second column asks you to grade how interested you think they are likely to be. Don't hung up on this though, as it is highly subjective. The key thing is that you understand what aspects of the research you think each group is likely to be interested in, or if they're not interested but they are important for other reasons, write down why you think they are disinterested. You will start to notice that different groups have quite different interests, and you will be able to use this later on to craft tailored messages to each one as you embark on the pathway to impact.
Question 2: How might they influence the ability of the research to achieve impact (indirectly)?
Now you need to consider if there are any groups or organisations who might have the ability to influence the ability of the researcher to acheive impact indirectly. Indirect influence over impact can work in two ways:
1. Those who have the ability to facilitate your impact: organisations or groups who want to achieve similar benefits for similar groups to you, who may provide you with important new opportunities or resources that could empower you to achieve greater impacts than would have been possible had you not connected with them. The earlier you connect, the more buy-in they will have and the more they are likely to help you (and vice versa).
2. Those who have the ability to block your impact: organisations whose interests are compromised or harmed by your work, whether in practical or ideological terms. They may have the power to prevent you from achieving impacts and it is important for both pragmatic and moral reasons to engage early with these groups to ensure you do not have negative unintended impacts, and/or you can bring round dissenting voices and find a way to work together (or work around them if necessary).
Consider how influential each of the interested groups might be, whether they might facilitate or block your impact, rating them high, medium or low. Again, the key is to understand the nature of their influence. The ratings are subjective but should stimulate you to think more deeply about the question. Describe how you think each public or stakeholder could influence the ability of the researcher to generate impact in column 5.
Question 3: Who is impacted?
Finally, there is an optional question about the level and nature of impact for each group who engages with your work. In some cases you may feel you have the answer to this already, and so you can skip this question. But it is a good discipline to ask yourself this question explicitly, because you will often realise that the impact is implicit (rather than explicit) in your answers so far. In particular, it is important to consider if there may be a negative impact here, so you can ameliorate this if possible. In some cases, this question reveals important hard-to-reach groups that may have limited interest and no influence, but who would benefit more than most other groups if you could only make it relevant enough to get them interested. Add information about the positive or negative impacts you think each group might get from engaging with the research in column 5 (alongside your comments on influence). Another reason this is a useful question is that you can easily convert a positive impact here into an impact goal in your impact plan (e.g. using the Fast Track Impact planning template).
Helping the hard-to-reach
Your final task is to use the information you have collected to prioritise who you will reach out to first. Traditionally, people used stakeholder analysis to select those with most interest and influence, to the detriment of those with high interest and benefit but little influence. That's why in the final column of the stakeholder/publics analysis template, you identify individuals, groups or organisations who have low interest but high influence and/or benefit as hard-to-reach groups that may require special attention. There are two types of hard-to-reach groups.
First, there are the gate-keepers who have huge influence as gate-keepers to facilitate or block impact, but who have limited interest in the research. For example, it may be at the edge of their desk and low-priority compared to other issues that are more central to their interests. As a result, they may not return the researcher’s emails or calls, and it is tempting to ignore them because they are so hard-to-reach. However, when the researcher eventually comes to their attention, the researcher may regret not investing more heavily in finding a way to get the gate-keeper’s attention early and find common ground, as they may have the power to stop you in the research in its tracks, for example preventing the researcher from getting access to data, people or resources that are crucial for their pathway to impact.
Second, there are the marginalised, who have little influence to either facilitate or block impact, and who may have limited interest in the research, but who could benefit more than anyone else if you could only make the work relevant enough. This analysis empowers you to prioritise the hard-to-reach if you wish, as well as the already-interested and powerful. The choice is yours.
The point is that you make an informed choice. You don't just reactively reach out to whoever is easiest to reach, or those outlets with the largest circulations or viewing figures. You prioritise those can benefit most from the research in a much more targeted way.
If you want to go deeper into stakeholder analysis, see this advanced guide to stakeholder analysis.