How do you approach internal communication between partners?
Strong internal communication ensures that all members of the partnership are up-to-date and have absorbed findings. Routine updates keep the partnership running smoothly. Partnerships often have agreements about the frequency and nature of internal communications, and clear points of contact for sharing information back and forth. In the real world, such clarity requires ongoing effort: partnerships must manage changes in staff, inefficiencies in communicating “up and down the chain of command,” and differences in institutional cultures.
Internal audiences may encompass multiple groups that vary by role, power, proximity to the lead agency or central office, and relationship to the current research agenda. Consider the diverse needs of all of your internal audiences and tailor communication to each of them.
Internal communication takes on a variety of formats, each intended for different purposes. These formats can include memos, emails, progress reports, annual meetings, and summaries of findings. These internal communications should be delivered in clear, actionable language, with sensitivity to both political and administrative implications.
How do you engage all partners?
One key agreement for an engagement plan is a “no surprises” policy, whereby all partners have an opportunity to review a report before it is released to the broader public. Partners need time to give and receive feedback on findings, and to craft thoughtful responses to questions and concerns that may arise upon release of research findings, particularly when findings are unexpected or nuanced.
Partnerships should also maximize opportunities to meet in-person. Often, the most effective and fruitful discussions involve informal, but frequent, exchanges. Top administrators, especially, might also be engaged through informal discussions that allow the space to engage findings and consider implications candidly before they become public. “Some of the most important communications were ones in which I picked up the phone and just talked through what we were finding,” observed one researcher.
Other internal structures such as standing workgroups provide an effective platform for communication and engagement. They are ready to hear findings with a particular lens of understanding, and are well-positioned to know what those findings mean for the system. They can be among the most influential champions of the work. Consider what kinds of information can help partners make the decisions most relevant to their work, including data and research findings that are not in their final, polished form.
How do you develop an effective external communication plan?
First, you must identify and understand the best ways to reach target audiences. Different audiences require different content and different communications methods, media, and messages. That is, senior administrators, mid-level managers, frontline professionals, parents, youth, advocates, and public officials will have very different information needs, habits, and motivations. Beyond the traditional research report, communication can include a range of print and digital content, as well as conference presentations, or testimony. Consider the appropriate media for your target audiences, your available resources, and determine ways you might package your information so that is useful, relevant, and accessible.
RPPs communications plans should also leverage the skills, expertise, and position of partners on both sides. This may mean finding ways to co-craft key messages and co-present information. Many practice partners, for instance, are experts at community engagement, particularly among diverse stakeholders. Researchers are skilled at elucidating technical nuance, for instance clarifying how the research methods are best suited to address the partnership’s questions, what findings indicate or not, and where more work is needed. Determining communications roles and responsibilities in ways that harness partners’ diverse strengths is an essential ingredient in the development of an effective plan.
How should partners coordinate external engagement efforts?
Partners often have agreements about the coordination and timing of engagement activities with external audiences. Engagement plans are necessary in part because communication occurs in an increasingly crowded space. Contemporary media has spawned an environment in which many competing messages are presented, limiting bandwidth for new considerations that a thoughtful line of research might bring. RPPs, like other entities, must determine how and where they fit in and how they can reach their audiences effectively. This often requires a more active approach.
Engagement requires bi-directional communication, feedback, sense-making, and co-planning for action. Opportunities for both formal and informal engagement are essential. Engagement plans ensure that key stakeholders (e.g., contracting agency staff, parents, and key advocates), beyond the primary agency partner context, also have opportunities to inform and be informed about key findings, and can, if necessary, develop their own responses to findings in which they are implicated. This might include training workshops, in-person public briefings with question and answer sessions, and interactive video conferences.
How do partnerships arrange the implementation of communications plans?
Communications implementation is shaped by available resources, institutional constraints and opportunities, and the maturity of the partnership. Some RPPs work with consultants who specialize in translating research findings to non-academic audiences. Others invest in training their researchers to communicate fluently with audiences beyond typical academic circles. Experienced RPPs suggest that a communications specialist is a high-priority hire as soon as the budget makes it a viable option. For partnerships that are housed in universities, university communications staff can help get the word out in creative and accessible formats, especially when the work of the partnership highlights the university’s civic mission. Of such situations, one researcher notes, “sometimes university communications offices may be inclined to use a different frame than practice partners would use to describe the work, so there’s effort on my part to be in touch with them so that press stories are truly reflective of the work.”
Are there particular communication challenges that RPPs often encounter?
While there is some funding built into the development of the research report, funding to support ongoing communications tasks is harder to come by.
The Consortium for Chicago School Research suggests ways to make the non-research aspects of the work “fundable,” including carving out a small portion of the funding from larger grants to fund talks, presentations, and short residual products (e.g., brochures and guides for parents). However, RPPs must also broaden the range of funders, including those who may not fund the research but will fund activities to engage stakeholders and the public on the research findings and their implications for change efforts. Similarly, RPPs may reach out to local businesses or investors that have an interest in the issues studied by the partnership and are interested in increasing awareness of the issues or supporting strategies to address the issues.
How do you fund a robust, multifaceted communications strategy?
A primary challenge is communicating research to a variety of audiences in a way that is accessible and succinct. The communications team, often just one person, requires a broad skill set in order to craft multiple messages that speak to different groups, even for a single piece of research.
Additionally, because partnership work is so close to the ground, RPPs must pay particular attention to how research is being received within the local political context, especially in high-stakes environments or with regard to “hot button” issues.A single piece of research can be understood in very different ways: an advocacy group, for example, might draw very different takeaways than a central agency office. For this reason, partnerships must not only develop their own core messages, but be prepared to respond to the myriad ways in which findings might be interpreted.
Another challenge is that uptake of a particular piece of research may occur months or even years after the research is completed. For some RPPs this means that they have to balance requests for information, presentations, workshops, or adapted tools from past research with requests for their current work. This can be difficult when the funding to support activities associated with the older work is no longer available.
A final consideration for some partnerships is the need for each partner to maintain their status as independent entities. For researchers there is a strong need to preserve their independence. For practice partners, there is an imperative that they closely manage communications, particularly when research is connected to issues that live beyond the scope of a particular research project. Similarly, the partnership may need to maintain an identity that is distinct from advocacy groups that may claim that the research evidence supports their views.