How do you develop an effective communication plan?

Communications must be considered from the very beginning. Start the research with the end users in mind. Who is invested in the findings? What do they want to know? By keeping those questions in mind, researchers are better equipped to frame the research questions and findings. They can also anticipate stakeholders’ intermediate communications needs during the project.

Potential stakeholders include senior administrators, mid-level managers, frontline professionals, parents, students, advocates, and public officials. Anticipate the findings that will be most pertinent to your intended audience. Consider the right venues, formats, and strategies for communicating with that audience. Strategize ways to position the findings to maximize their use.

It is important to keep in mind that the release of a research report is only one aspect of an overall communications plan. Briefings, training for practitioners and other stakeholders, podcasts or blogs, and op-ed pieces may all be part of an overall communications strategy for a given piece of research. All of these communications avenues should be considered in the ongoing communications plan for an RPP.

How should we manage communication about research projects and findings?

How RPPs staff their communications functions depends on their available resources, institutional constraints and opportunities, and the maturity of the partnership. RPPs housed in academic institutions tap into their university communications teams. Those teams help get the word out in creative and accessible formats, particularly when the RPP work highlights the university’s commitment to its civic mission. Other RPPs work with consultants adept at translating research findings to audiences outside the academic world. Some also invest in training their researchers to communicate more effectively to a broad audience. Experienced RPPs suggest that a communications specialist should be a high priority hire.

How should communications from the researchers and the district be coordinated?

While different partnerships take a variety of approaches, communications typically involves both sides having their own independent communications strategies and teams, with some agreements in place about the coordination and timing of external communications.

One key agreement is to develop a “no surprises” policy whereby all partners have an opportunity to review a report before it is released to the broader public, and can prepare a response to the research team, the media, and/or the public. This allows both researchers and practitioners time to anticipate and craft thoughtful responses to questions and concerns that may arise upon release of research findings.

How do we align our communications strategy with real-time opportunities for research to be used?

There is no direct line from research findings to policy and practice. Researchers don’t just provide “facts” that then drive change. Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners need back-and-forth interactions to interpret findings and translate them into action. This work requires taking a long view. The effects of partnership research are bolstered by a long-term commitment to relationship-building, regular communication, and strategic positioning.

Vivian Tseng, Vice President for Program at the William T. Grant Foundation, reminds us that public decision makers “draw on an existing store of knowledge—experience, local data, policies, and political contexts—to understand the problem and determine a course of action.” This reality requires getting savvy about the many different uses of research in the public arena. Experienced RPPs take what they know about these various uses of research and create opportunities for research to be taken up.

How should we approach internal communications between partners?

Internal communications between members of the partnership are just as important as external communications. Strong internal communications ensures that all members of the partnership are updated on project developments and have absorbed findings before they hit external audiences. Partners need time to give and receive feedback on findings, and to prepare their public responses—particularly when findings are mixed.

Routine updates keep the partnership running smoothly. Partners should 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. As with external audiences, internal communications takes on a variety of formats, each intended for different purposes. These formats can include internal 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 is research used in districts?

It is important for partnerships to anticipate the various ways research can be used. These include:

  • Instrumental Uses: Research findings support specific decisions—for instance, adopting an instructional approach for teaching mathematics or implementing an early warning system to keep students on track.
  • Conceptual Uses: Research helps district leaders understand and frame the issues they are confronting. More indirect than instrumental uses of research, conceptual uses shape how decision makers orient themselves to a problem or potential solutions.
  • Administrative Uses: Research highlights inefficiencies and gaps in system performance, and therefore influences administrative decisions about where to direct resources or update procedures to improve overall performance.
  • Political Uses: The research that RPPs undertake is conducted in a political environment in which decisions have public consequences. It shouldn’t be a surprise that stakeholders will use the findings to support their positions.

See: Using Evidence: How Research Can Inform Public Services

What can I do to position my research to be used?

Researcher Cynthia Coburn, professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, has summarized ways that researchers can better position research to be used in decision-making:

  • Provide resources (fact sheets, workshops, briefings, and trainings) to practice partners that support them in interpreting findings and making connections to actionable items.
  • Understand that political circumstances trump research. Be open to supporting research use in ways that may not have a direct or immediate system impact.
  • Alternately, recognize that political circumstances may raise the profile of research. Be ready with key, concise messages.
  • Create structures and routines that strengthen the culture of evidence use and enable interpretation of findings. Devote resources to supporting these structures.
  • Build capacity within districts for analyzing, interpreting, and communicating findings. Build the research literacy of partners. Strengthen research partners’ policy and political literacy.
  • Invest in conceptual use – it is often easier to get broad agreement on concepts than specific policies. Conceptual use of research can go a long way.
  • Strategize ways to get the right people to the table.

What do researchers need to know about the timing issues that practice partners face?

Timing is key—and sometimes unpredictable. Much of what allows research to make it into the practice and policy realm is a “perfect storm” of conditions, only some of which partners have influence over. “The current politics may mean that some of this won’t ‘take’ in the moment, so some of this is about waiting four months down the line for the right opening to emerge,” says Faith Connelly, Executive Director of the Baltimore Education Research Consortium. But the waiting is strategic, with eyes open and ears to the ground listening for where administrators and policy officials, advocates, and the public are headed next.

What kinds of strategies have RPPs used to improve communication and encourage use of the research they produce?

Getting everyone within the RPP on board with the importance of a robust communications plan, particularly one that goes beyond the production of research reports, is essential. Involving your communications team early on in the development of proposals, and at every point from the developmental stages of a project to the final draft, is an important organizational practice. Such intentional and ongoing consideration of communications will shape the development of products that speak to key audiences, capture actionable themes, and anticipate reactions to the research.

In addition to an internal communications team, some RPPs have created steering committees, groups of stakeholders that are regularly engaged in reviewing reports and other products. These individuals may represent various stakeholders within the district, including administrators, teachers, advocates, and others. Committee roles include setting the research agenda, providing feedback on reports, and advising on public engagement.

How do you find funding for a robust, multifaceted communications strategy?

While there is some funding built into the development of the research report, funding to support ongoing communications tasks is harder to come by. Yet RPPs find that their communications priorities do not stop at the release of a report. In order to foster research use and feedback into their own capacity to produce useful research, RPPs need to adopt and find ways to fund additional communications strategies.

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, 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.

Are there particular communication challenges that RPPs often encounter?

A primary challenge is communicating research to a wide audience in a way that is accessible, succinct, and in plain language. The communications team, often just one person, is usually asked to craft multiple messages for a variety of constituents, even for a single piece of research. These challenges often mean that the communications role within a partnership requires a wide-ranging skill set.

An additional challenge is that uptake of a particular piece of research may occur months or even years after the research was 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 a particular challenge when the funding to support activities associated with the older work is no longer available.

Because RPPs’ research is close to the ground, they must pay particular attention to how research is being received and interpreted within the local political context. They must not only develop their own core messages, but also be prepared to respond to the myriad ways in which their research is interpreted. A key consideration for Research Alliances is the need to maintain their status as independent entities, particularly on “hot button” issues in which multiple stakeholders may claim that the research evidence supports their views.