Section 2: Topic 3

Significance and reach

You will learn more about Evidencing impacts from media engagement later in the toolkit, but it is worth noting here that impact is usually judged against two criteria: significance and reach:

  • First, ask yourself how significant are the benefits of the research you are covering. How meaningful, valuable or beneficial is this research to those who are likely to engage with your media work?  

  • Second, ask yourself how far-reaching these benefits are. You can get audience metrics fairly easily, but how many of these do you think actually benefited in any specific way? Also you might ask whether there are other groups who might benefit in similar ways, or new applications of the research that could bring new benefits to new groups, enabling the researchers to extend their reach in important ways. 

 

The order in which you ask yourself these two questions is crucial. I would argue that if you do something in every country of the world across multiple social groups, but no one really cares or benefits in any tangible or meaningful way, you don’t actually have an impact. On the other hand, if you save one person’s life as a result of your institution’s research, you clearly have a significant impact. Therefore, first ask yourself what you can do that would be significant on whatever scale you feel is achievable at this point. It may be one company, your local community or your local hospital, but if you think you could actually achieve something significant on that scale, focus on that. 

 

This may mean using your media skills to enable researchers to target local newspapers that have very targeted reach, or to develop online videos about their research to train clinicians in a pilot hospital or company as proof of concept before you ever get to the national or international scales that press offices tend to focus on first. If you are able to help researchers collect evidence of the benefits of their engagement, then the evidence that it worked for one company, one community or one hospital makes it much easier for others to follow in their footsteps, and may generate organic demand for the same benefits elsewhere. 

Case Study: How a targeted press release led to a new life-saving drug test

Chris Pudney, Jenny Scott and Stephen Husbands, from the University of Bath, developed a handheld saliva test for the recreational drug Spice. This test is the first of its kind and takes only 5 minutes to determine whether someone has taken the drug. Previously, only blood or urine tests could be used, taking up to a week to find out the results, and proving useless to paramedics in urgent cases. The use of Spice in prisons was a difficult problem to tackle, due to there not being a quick test. 

The new test for Spice was ultimately designed for the safety of substance users, the vast majority of whom are prisoners and the homeless. In order to help these people, it was vital that connections were made with prisons, drug awareness and harm reduction facilities, and health organisations.  Media engagement was crucial for raising awareness for these contacts to be made. 

The researchers clearly communicated to the press office that they wanted their invention to be presented as a health initiative, rather than for law enforcement purposes. Therefore, the press office framed the press release around the benefits for treating patients who are under the influence of Spice. They only contacted those whom they trusted to cover the story accurately and to comply with the intentions of the researchers. 

The University of Bath’s press office developed the press release, that shared the news about the product and the story behind it. This led to collaborations with TICTAC, a leading provider of drug identification and information to healthcare sectors, and MANDRAKE (Manchester Drug Analysis and Knowledge Exchange), a testing and harm reduction facility based in Manchester City Centre, where Spice is used widely within the homeless community. The new test will be available in clinics in 2020, and has the potential to save lives, particularly of those most vulnerable in society. It will save time for clinicians and so relieve strain on emergency services dealing with patients under the influence of Spice.

The story was subsequently picked up by Radio 4’s ‘Science in Action’ programme, which led to Hull Prison contacting the research team to explore how the test could be used to improve prisoner welfare. They hope further tests will be developed that could detect Spice smuggled in as paper, disguised as letters. 

Chris Melvin, from the press office of the University of Bath, who worked with the researchers said, “It is important for researchers to think about who they want to reach, and why, when contacting their press offices. This means the press office can tailor the messages for the intended audience(s) in their materials. 

“I advise researchers to give their press office colleagues as much notice as possible ahead of publication, so they can draft a press release and prepare content such as videos, photos and infographics to tell the story really well. 

“When the story comes out, it’s important to make time for interviews, engage with media and help the news reach as many people as possible. In this case, the media coverage led directly to collaborations with those who want to develop and use the kit for better public health.”