This section will help you understand how to engage three of the key audiences for research dissemination and achieve impact on policy and practice.
By working through this section you will:
- see how research communications can help to achieve impact
- understand the principles around engaging policy, practice and public audiences, with tips and guidance from researchers with a track record in doing this
- see what other researchers have done to engage policy, practice and public audiences in the communication of their findings.
There are four parts to this section:
- Demonstrating impact through communications activity.
- Influencing a policy audience.
- Engaging a practice audience.
- Communicating with the public.
Academic institutions are required, via the Research Excellence Framework, to demonstrate the impact of their findings beyond research and academic audiences. It is possible to shape your communications in order to monitor and gather impact indicators.
Some research findings may have a relevance and potential application that can influence health policy. If this is the case, to influence any issue at scale it is necessary to communicate and engage with policymakers. With this much targeted, time-poor audience, knowing who to approach and how takes on particular importance.
Spreading evidence of good practice or any research that has implications for practice audiences will increase potential impact. The term ‘practice audiences’ covers a myriad of professions and levels. Here we explore some tried and tested means of targeting and reaching them, with examples from researchers who have engaged practice audiences in their findings.
Communication of research findings relevant to a public audience can lead to more informed choices, better population health, and less anxiety or confusion around treatment (for example). Effective communication can also help build trust between the research community and the public but it carries some risks – predominantly of misinterpretation of findings. Well-planned, well-targeted communications can help maximise opportunities and manage those risk factors.
Demonstrating impact through communications activity
How to measure the impact of your communications, and the indicators to collect
'What is the point of my research if I don’t communicate the findings? I do this because I want to make a difference. I want to move thinking on. It’s also about demonstrating value for money for the research. We need to give this whole area more imagination, thought and time. We have to go beyond the academic paper to reach the people who have the power to use the findings and make something happen.'
Professor Bryony Dean Franklin, Executive Lead Pharmacist (Research), Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Professor of Medication Safety, University College London School of Pharmacy
Research Councils UK defines research impact as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’.
With the rising importance of impact in assessing research excellence in the UK, researchers are increasingly expected by their host organisations and research funders to track and demonstrate the impact of their research.
This might be in the form of academic impact, where the research has meaningfully shifted understanding and/or advanced thinking in a specific academic discipline. Or it might also be in the form of social and economic impact, where the research is seen to make a wider contribution to the economy or society.
Traditional, established channels for achieving academic impact are academic conferences and journals. Achieving wider societal impact often requires broader engagement and communication to influence the understanding, practice and behaviour of policy, professional or public audiences.
By understanding how to track what you are achieving with your communication of research findings across these wider audiences, you can determine some measures that demonstrate the value, influence and impact of your research.
Communications objectives and indicators
Opportunities for impact can arise through your communications at any stage of the research process.
This means being as clear as you can be about your communications objectives from the outset, and identifying the indicators you need to track to demonstrate where you have achieved impact.
The communications indicators you aim to collect should flow from the communications objectives you set. The following table contains examples of communications indicators. They might provide an important subset of your broader research impact measures.
Gathering impact measures on your communications outputs, and on how your audiences respond to them, can be relatively straightforward. However, collecting impact measures on outcomes might not be feasible for many studies, due to the time and resource involved. For some research studies, it can also be very difficult to isolate the specific contribution communicating the research has had on changes in policy, practice or behaviour.
Indicators to collect
What you put out that is received by your target audiences
Responses and reactions of the target audiences
The effect of the communication on the target audiences
Evaluating the impact of your communications activity in its own right is also an important way to help ensure that you are investing time in the right activities, and to capture any learning to inform future communications and engagement work.
- The International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication has developed an interactive online framework for evaluating communications activity. Users can submit their objectives, outputs and impact measures into this free tool and generate a PDF report.
- The tool is supported by a range of resources, including a more detailed taxonomy of evaluation, which lists potential metrics and evaluation methods.
- The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has developed an online pathways to impact toolkit for researchers. It includes advice on how to develop an impact statement for applications as well as guidance on planning evaluation activity.
- The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement has produced guidance for those evaluating public engagement activity.
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Influencing health policy audiences
Why communicate with a health services policy audience?
Many researchers are motivated by driving improvement – to see the evidence from their studies contribute to better policy and practice in health services. To influence any issue at scale, it is often necessary to engage with policymakers: those that set, develop or influence the practice, regulatory, legislative and political frameworks for health services.
Who to engage?
There are a range of policymakers associated with health services. Who you engage with as a priority will depend on the nature of your study.
Health is a devolved issue within the UK. The UK Parliament legislates for England’s NHS. The Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly are all responsible for health legislation within their own country.
Policymakers draft policy under direction from the government of the day. However, policymaking is informed by a wide range of stakeholders or ‘influencers’. The following provide a brief overview of some of the main policy audiences associated with health care.
Politicians and political parties
Politicians can sit at a local, regional or national level. In the case of both councillors and Members of Parliament (including Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), Assembly Members (AMs) and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs)), not only can they fulfil their role as local representatives but they can also take on positions of policy influence through specialist committees or in party policy formulation, such as by developing manifestos and policy commitments. Politicians with an existing role or interest in health or the area of your study are a key entry point to engaging with policymakers.
Civil servants tend to move portfolios less than MPs and may have been working in the broad area of health for a number of years. They are tasked with developing and implementing workable policy. As such, if they are developing policy in an area that relates to your study, they are likely to be interested in hearing detailed evidence.
Although visible and influential, government ministers can be difficult to reach and require a highly targeted approach. A large department like the Department of Health will have several ministers who split the portfolio among them. Understanding who has the closest interest in your study, and targeting specifically them, is important. Special advisers can be a good conduit of information and intelligence for a minister. Their role means they should be on top of the latest thinking and developments, so they may be open to approaches by external experts/sources of information.
Statutory arms-length bodies (regulatory bodies such as NHS England, Healthcare Improvement Scotland, the Care Quality Commission, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and NHS Improvement) do not set national policy, but have a key role in implementing it. They may also influence national policymakers and set their own sector-specific policies and procedures (eg around inspection) to enable them to fulfil their statutory functions.
Professional sector bodies
These do not set national policy, but can influence it. Some professional bodies have a regulatory role and set standards and procedures that their members must meet in order to legally practise – for example, the General Medical Council (GMC) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). Other professional bodies – such as the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the British Medical Association (BMA) and NHS Professionals – have a role in representing their members’ interests and may deliver educational support.
Third sector organisations and other influencers
Although not policymakers in a strict sense, think tanks and third sector bodies (such as Diabetes UK, the British Heart Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Society) can be highly effective influencers of policy and amplifiers of evidence if they feel that it serves the interests or needs of their audiences and beneficiaries. As effective routes to policymakers, they are worth considering when thinking about your audiences. Some think tanks operate across the political spectrum, while others may have strong associations with a particular political party.
Some routes to engaging politicians
The following are practical routes through which you can try to reach politicians.
- Identify the parliamentarians and politicians that are already interested in health or your area of study, Google is an obvious but helpful tool. Seeing which posts they have held and which committees they have sat on is a useful starting point. Paid-for tools such as Foresight News provide a weekly parliamentary round-up, news of forthcoming events and a useful search function, but can be a significant long-term investment.
- Searching via keywords on Twitter is also a useful means of identifying interests.
- You can contact councillors, MPs, AMs, MSPs, MLAs and Peers direct via Twitter, email or post.
- Submit ideas for inquiries or present evidence (written or verbal) to relevant Commons or Lords committees. Every inquiry will issue an open call for submissions and evidence/contributions. This is often done via press release or can be found on the parliament.uk website. The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology has frequently covered health issues in recent years. Its subsequent reports are regularly debated in the House of Commons.
- Devolved parliaments/assemblies have their own influential committees. The Welsh Assembly has a range of health advisory committees, Scotland has its Health and Sport committee, and Northern Ireland has the Committee for Health.
- All-party parliamentary groups are informal, cross-party groups that coordinate around a specialist area. There are several covering specific aspects of mental and physical health. The speakers invited are generally relevant to the topic under discussion.
- Backbench committees often hear presentations from experts and are a useful way of gaining profile among parliamentarians in the early stages of formulating policy. Both the Labour and Conservative parties have backbench committees. Contact party offices for details of the officers who serve them.
- The House of Commons Library is tasked with providing impartial information to MPs in support of their parliamentary duties. This includes debate packs (briefings on upcoming debates) and an ad-hoc service for MPs to answer any questions confidentially. Academic research may be part of this information provision. The library has a number of subject specialists.
- The House of Lords Library produces a weekly Current Affairs Digest that includes summaries of journal articles. The digest is grouped by social policy, science, economic affairs, home affairs, international affairs and the Constitution.
How to go about it
Tips to engage policymakers and influencers
Understand the basics of the parliamentary process
You’ll be able to pinpoint the opportunities for your research to influence policy.
Target the policymakers and influencers already interested in the area of your research
Politicians and policymakers are approached by a myriad of groups and individuals. Focus on those that have an interest in health and, ideally, the particular area of your study.
Check the UK parliamentary website ‘what’s on’ section
Every Friday the website publishes the next week’s debates or committee meetings for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. If the subject relates to your research, you can submit your findings as evidence to be considered – either to individual MPs or as written evidence for an inquiry or select committee. For the devolved nations you can refer to the Welsh Assembly calendar, the Scottish Parliament has the committees hub, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has a business diary.
Pitch your information at the right level
Even sector bodies, versed in the acronyms and language of health services, appreciate succinct, targeted communications about your research. As a rule of thumb, think of your audiences as intelligent but highly time-pressed. This applies equally to politicians and civil servants. Whatever channel you use to approach them, you need to make the link between your study and their existing interests quickly and clearly. Civil servants are generally more willing to engage with detailed evidence but often only when actively working on a piece of related legislation.
Try to contain briefing documents to no more than three pages: and less if possible.
Connect the study to the targeted politician’s personal, sector, constituency or ministerial interests. Include any accessible facts and figures that convey the context or the issue easily. Be clear and concise about the limitations of the findings.
Be clear about where the study sits in the wider research context
Does the study confirm findings from other studies or indicate different outcomes? Is it groundbreaking or is it synthesising knowledge in a particular area?
Be prepared to draw out policy implications
It is important that any briefing aimed at policymakers includes policy recommendations, or at least sets out the implications arising from your study. Many policymakers are familiar with the research process and understand the caution around drawing definitive conclusions from one study. However, your knowledge and thought process has value and, as part of the research team, you are best placed to understand and talk about the consequences of your work for policy.
Influencing policymakers: examples
Funding projections for NHS Wales 2019–2030: engaging policymakers throughout the research process
The Health Foundation’s study of the demand/cost pressures facing NHS Wales was designed to engage decision makers who could, potentially, reflect and implement the research findings from the very outset of the study. It did this through a carefully planned approach, which included the following.
- One-to-one interviews at scoping stage were able to build understanding around the particular health context in Wales, as well as the language and frameworks used. The relationships forged in this scoping exercise did not compromise the independence of the research but meant that there was a strong understanding of what evidence policymakers actively needed and felt would be helpful.
- Identifying and working with a local partner who knew and was already involved in the policy community in Wales provided an efficient way of identifying and forging that initial connection with key policymakers and influencers.
- As the study progressed, a series of workshops and meetings were held with key influential audiences (medical and finance directors, senior practitioners, etc). It was felt that their view of the work, and their potential support for it, could influence policymakers’ decisions once findings were available. Time was taken to ensure that these key audiences were familiar with the work and able to understand its methodology and approach.
- When research was complete, but ahead of any publication or release of results, presentations were made to senior NHS and government officials. Again, this had no material impact on the research itself but meant that key audiences were briefed and able to give a considered response to the findings. Even if that response was critical of an aspect of the research or findings, a view was taken that the goal was to generate informed, thoughtful debate around the study.
- Findings were made available, via a joint press conference with the Welsh NHS Confederation, two days before the Welsh budget was announced. This enabled the budget to reflect the study’s findings.
- Interim results were shared, which not only helped identify where improvements to the model could be made, but also helped identify how best to communicate results. For example, where consistent challenges or concerns were raised, the team were able to address these directly in the report.
- Relevant stakeholders were thoroughly briefed, which meant that they felt comfortable using the work for their own discussions and presentations. This led to the results reaching audiences that they would not otherwise have reached.
- The focus and limitation of the work was communicated clearly in order to manage expectations.
- The report was published in Welsh and English, which meant it reached audiences that it may not have otherwise.
Research into seven-day working: partnership working and using media coverage to raise awareness among policymakers
A team led by Rachel Meacock and Matt Sutton from Manchester Centre for Health Economics set out to estimate the costs of the proposed seven-day working week and compare these to the potential health benefits. They also re-investigated the evidence underpinning the policy to explore whether the ‘weekend effect’ was due to a lack of doctors and specialist staff or the nature of the patients admitted. As the study coincided with a strike by junior doctors and the government’s wish to implement seven-day working in doctors’ contracts, publication of the findings was time-sensitive. The findings did not support the government’s position on seven-day working. Therefore, care was needed not only to ensure that the findings were publicised to add to the body of knowledge around the issue, but also to ensure they were reported accurately.
- Meacock and Sutton undertook pre-publication briefings with practitioners and policy advisers around the research findings. As economists, they were keen to feed their findings into policy and practice to see how they aligned with practitioners’ experiences on the ground.
- They took every opportunity to present their findings – both pre- and post-publication.
- Their intention was to seek out other interested parties – identifying the audiences that would have the highest interest in their findings. As a consequence, contact was made with a member of the national junior doctors’ network and then the BMA, who were motivated to make the research as widely known as possible. Knowing that the findings were time sensitive, Meacock and Sutton chose journals based on their ability to publish quickly and enable open access to their paper.
- They launched their findings to the media using the media resources of their university’s press office.
- They also wrote various blogs and columns about the work, including in the Health Service Journal.
- They used Twitter to amplify traditional media coverage. Their papers ranked top for altmetrics in their respective journals.
- The publications have led to briefings with opposition parties and the Shadow Secretary of State for Health.
Research into mental health advocacy: using strategic partnerships and innovative approaches to engage policymakers
Senior Lecturer in Health Policy and Management at the Health Services Management Centre (University of Birmingham), Dr Karen Newbigging began building a body of work on mental health advocacy in 2005. Karen and colleagues have, through the course of several studies and outputs, sought to engage policymakers in a deeper understanding of the need for, and organisation of, mental health advocacy. The work has contributed towards increased awareness of advocacy and its role in the promotion and protection of rights, particularly for people detained under the Mental Health Act. Recommendations from this research have been incorporated into inspections by the Care Quality Commission, informed the development of indicators for advocacy services by the National Development Team for inclusion, and been cited by the Department of Health and a House of Commons Select Committee.
- Newbigging and her team formed strategic partnerships with mental health charities and individuals with lived experience of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. These partners were included throughout the research process (as co-researchers) also in the presentation of findings to policymakers, and have co-authored articles and briefings in a range of formats to maximise the impact of their research.
- The team had a clear view of their target audiences – proactive engagement with policymakers and the opportunity to present to parliamentarians was felt to be key to raising initial awareness of the findings. With policy influencers including the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health were made a priority.
- In presenting findings, Newbigging and her colleagues (including people with mental health issues), used both traditional and innovative presentation methods. With specific audiences, it was felt that disrupting the normal presentation format would make the findings more memorable and impactful.
- Newbigging secured additional funding for the development of communications resources. An implementation project was led by Dr Julie Ridley from the University of Central Lancashire to promote better understanding among parliamentarians and other stakeholders of advocacy, by people detained under the Mental Health Act.
- The work continues to create high levels of awareness and influence in mental health policy and legislation and has recently been extended to investigate the commissioning of advocacy under the Care Act.
Download a range of resources including films, briefings and guidelines.
- Contact the information offices in Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly for details of committee memberships, forthcoming business, and parliamentary and legislative procedures. Read information on how local government works can be found.
- The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has produced a guide on influencing public affairs.
- the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology provides advice on writing a policy brief.
- Read advice on influencing policymakers, written from the perspective of a previous government special adviser.
- The National Council for Voluntary Organisations offers advice on influencing parliamentarians in the devolved nations.
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Engaging a practice audience in your findings
Why communicate with health care practitioners?
If your research has implications for health care practice, engaging with practitioners is an important way to increase its impact. This is particularly the case where you can isolate specific insights that might influence their work.
Who to engage?
With more than 1 million people working in the NHS, the simple term ‘health care practitioner’ belies immense diversity in professions, career paths, attitudes, interests and outlooks. If any generalisation can be made about this audience, it is that they are busy people.
A crucial first step is to identify the practitioners for whom your research is most relevant. This means segmenting them potentially by professional group, career grade, health care setting, role, region and specialty. The more precisely you can identify the specific groups you might engage, the easier it will be to frame your research in ways that will speak to their particular contexts and interests.
It is also worth considering who the early adopters are likely to be within these groups. Early adopters are so named because they are among the first to adapt or change their practice in response to new information and ideas. They are often seeking practical solutions to the problems they perceive, or may have a strong commitment to a specific topic, such as patient safety or person-centred care.
How to go about it
Tips to engage health care practitioners
Connect your research topic to their daily concerns
Clearly demonstrate how your research insights address the priorities of individual groups. Tailor your messages, reflecting the priorities and language of each group. Bear in mind that key priorities for clinical staff often include improving patient experience and reducing workload.
Make the content of your communications as practical as possible
Establish clear connections between your research evidence and any implications for practice, including potential benefit, harm and costs. Where possible and appropriate, use patient stories and day-to-day examples to ground data and insights.
Keep communications tools concise and accessible
Provide short, tailored summaries of your research – for example, through one-page briefing sheets, a two-minute film or a diagram that provides a visual summary. Develop tools that help people to spread the message, such as PowerPoint slides they can download and insert into presentation packs.
Reference any journal articles
For those who need to access more detail. In exceptional cases where there is likely to be demand for more background, present reports using a 1:3:25 page format. This provides staged access: a one-pager on key themes; a slightly longer executive summary; and a total report that is no more than 25 pages long.
Exploit the channels practitioners use
Early adopter audiences are often best reached through conferences; on social media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook; and via profession-specific journals, newsletters and magazines. Bear in mind that many people in clinical roles may not have access to a screen for much of the working day, so may use phones to access online content. This could restrict their ability to download or read larger documents.
Use existing networks
Ideas in health care often travel through conversations and interactions among trusted peers. For this reason, communications within professional networks, conferences and collaboratives can be instrumental in promoting the uptake of good practice. As clinicians often need six weeks’ notice to take time out of a clinic, face-to-face meetings may be much easier to achieve through existing forums or groups.
Work with clinical and managerial champions
You may also want to identify and work with those who have central or trusted positions in professional groups or networks – for example, through the NHS England National Clinical Directors or the royal colleges and specialist clinical societies. Opinion leaders can be found at many different levels – they’re not just the most senior or ‘official’ leader in any network. Research suggests that peer ‘champions’ may be particularly useful when seeking to engage doctors.
Sharing research findings with practitioners: examples
Communicating about the potential to improve tracheostomy care
The National Tracheostomy Safety Project (NTSP) has undertaken research into the nature and severity of problems with tracheostomies in intensive care units, wards and the community. This research has demonstrated the significant impact that sub-optimal care has on patients. Consultant anaesthetist Dr Brendan McGrath is leading on the work to raise awareness of these findings among health professionals across the UK, funded by a grant from the Health Foundation.
There are important implications arising from this research for front-line hospital staff, managers, GPs and staff working in the community. They all have an influence on the outcomes for these patients, and the challenge has been demonstrating the relevance of our research to a wide range of professionals.
'We have tackled this by creating a suite of 30-second films in which the content is framed differently depending on the professional group. For example, our film for doctors focuses on these patients’ inability to communicate pain, and the implications for prescribing; in our film for nurses, we focus on the practicalities of bedside care; and for managers, we explore the impact of sub-optimal care on length of stay.
We’ve found we can communicate best practice much more quickly through film than through a written form, as staff can see the procedures and quickly grasp how they might need to adapt their own methods. The films will also act as a hook to prompt people to visit our website for more in-depth films and resources, tailored to their roles. We will be using social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn to promote the content, and we are planning to provide articles to the newsletters of the royal colleges.
My goal in my research is ultimately to improve patient care at the bedside, which means communicating the findings in meaningful and engaging ways directly to front-line staff. The great thing about online content is that we can track every interaction so we will know how many people we have reached, what they have looked at and for how long. While it’s a surrogate for measuring any impact on clinical and patient experience outcomes, I will have a much better understanding of the numbers of relevant staff reached than I would ever have gained through more traditional journal and conference routes.'
Dr Brendan McGrath, Consultant Anaesthetist, University Hospital of South Manchester and Lead Clinician for National Tracheostomy Safety Project
Communicating research on measuring and monitoring safety
In 2016, the Health Foundation published A framework for measuring and monitoring safety. This brief practical guide summarised an in-depth research project led by Professor Charles Vincent, Susan Burnett and Jane Carthey. It provided NHS staff with a framework for measuring and monitoring safety, and has since been downloaded more than 2,700 times.
The guide was tailored to the needs of practitioners in several ways. It included:
- a visual summary of the framework, including five dimensions and associated questions to help individuals and organisations understand and discuss what it means to be safe
- brief arguments in favour of a new approach to measurement, grounded in current debates
- a summary of what the framework might mean for front-line professionals, managers, board members, regulators, and patients and the public
- broad principles to consider in applying it, and prompts to help people focus on some of the main challenges
- a brief summary of the research underpinning the framework and details of further resources.
'We think the guide proved as popular as it did because it synthesised an area of research that was highly relevant to those responding to the fallout from high profile patient safety failures in the NHS at the time.
We were not able to provide practitioners with definitive answers about the steps to take locally in measuring safety, but we could help them focus their conversations and planning through a set of principles and prompts underpinned by research. The framework also provided a visual summary that could be quickly grasped and understood, with many people downloading the supporting slides to share with colleagues.'
John Illingworth, Health Foundation Improvement Fellow
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Communicating with the public
Why communicate with the public?
Clear, thoughtful communications around research findings have the potential to increase the perceived value of research among the public and build trust between researchers and society.
There is also the question of impact. Some studies produce findings that are able to inform or empower public audiences to make more informed choices about treatment and care. The effect of this on individuals (eg improve health; develop possession of information that can inform positive choices and empower positive decision making; lessen anxiety) is a powerful outcome from a study, and seeing such impact can be motivating for a research team.
Finally, the kind of profile that can accompany public communication of findings can raise awareness among influencers, stakeholders and funders of a study’s findings and of individual researchers. This can help to build a career and bring about positive change in the field.
It should be noted that communicating your findings to public audiences is distinct from engaging public and patient organisations to help plan and carry out communications activities.
How to identify your public audiences
In strategic communications terms, ‘the public’ is not a legitimate target audience for research findings. Identification of potential audiences in such an amorphous way does not provide the focus required to build a successful communications approach.
Instead, it is necessary to identify those people among the public who will – through reasons of experience, existing interests, health conditions, etc – be predisposed to engage with your findings. The identification of these audiences – and descripting or characterising them – is a process known as audience segmentation.
How to go about it
Tips on communicating with the public
Narrow down your audiences
Who is it that you need to engage with as a priority? Who will be most interested? Who may benefit the most from your research insights? Focus your communications on this group.
Identify how your findings can impact people’s lives
Your starting point is understanding your audiences’ interest in, or the potential benefit of, your findings to them (eg introducing health coaching to those with long-term conditions). You can then create messages that speak to these.
Help your audience place the research and its findings in context
How do the research findings fit into what the audiences may already know about the issue? Are the findings indicating a major change in, or an addition to, an existing body of knowledge?
Identify the implications of the findings
If you do not draw implications from your findings, then others may. What could this affect? What may this change? What are the potential benefits or risks? This can be set within the limitations of the study or highlighting gaps in knowledge or the need for further research.
Match your language to the audience
Relay your information and findings in language that your target audiences would use. Always avoid jargon.
Use the communications channels that your audiences use and trust
Where do they go to receive information? Which channels do they trust? Will this information have a legacy (ie is it likely to remain relevant and be accessed for a number of years)? If so, which is the most relevant and easily accessible repository for the information.
Who are your funding sources and partners? Who supports this work and believes in it?
Prepare for misinterpretation or detractors
Is it possible to identify areas of your research or findings that could be misinterpreted? Think about how you can counter this in any information you make public. If findings are misinterpreted, act swiftly to correct and supply accurate information.
Provide information on what audiences can do next
If your target audiences are fully engaged by the findings, where can they find more information? What can they do? Who can they contact?
Influencing a public audience: examples
Communicating complex data on children’s heart surgery outcomes: creating a channel to allow the exploration and understanding of data
Christina Pagel is an applied mathematician at University College London’s Clinical Operational Research Unit, researching children’s survival after heart surgery. She was part of the team that developed the statistical formulae used by the NHS to evaluate survival data, which has been made available in a public report since 2013. She believes that making data public can only drive accountability and improvement if the data are also understandable. Christina and the team, with funding from the National Institute for Health Research, set out to develop a website for a lay audience to be able to understand and interpret the published survival data.
- Recognising that significant resource would be required, the team applied for additional funding for their research communications. Their funder was not only open to the idea, but also encouraged them further to involve the target audience in the development of the website.
- Partnerships were forged with experts in communicating data, building websites and the charity Sense about Science, which specialises in responsible reporting of scientific evidence in the media.
- An iterative approach was taken to the development of the website, with considerable time and effort put into listening to users and testing.
- The success of the project depended on using the right language to present abstract and complex concepts to the public. It was recognised that the target audience could be engaging with the site at a time of anxiety – and the language and accessibility needed to accommodate this.
- Although it was recognised that building a website would be an unusual channel for the research team to use, the clear advantages that it offered – providing an accessible, searchable resource for current and future users plus allowing for annual updates of data – meant that the team were clear that this was the right channel to use.
UbbLE (UK Longevity Explorer): managing the release of potentially sensationalist data from the UK Biobank
In 2015, Andrea Ganna and Erik Ingelsson (Karolinska Institute) used innovative, interactive technology to communicate the results of their study of around 500,000 UK Biobank participants into five-year mortality predictors. Via a website called UbbLE (the UK Longevity Explorer), members of the public were able to answer a set of questions that were then used to predict their individual risk of dying within the next five years. There was a risk of misinterpretation and sensationalism surrounding the release of these data; therefore the communications around UbbLE – how it presented the data and how it was launched to the public – needed to be handled with particular sensitivity and clarity.
- Ganna and Ingelsson sought funding to create UbbLE, and developed a partnership with Sense about Science – specialists in the communication of complex scientific research.
- As proxy representatives for the public, communications officers from major UK health bodies and charities were consulted to bring their own experience on the communication of sensitive health data.
- The Science Media Centre advised on and hosted the press launch of UbbLE – ensuring that comprehensive, accurate information was available for journalists.
- Sense about Science took advice on the wording and visuals for the risk calculator from experts in risk communication for public groups, the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication)
- The website had 1.5 million visitors on the day of launch, with this rising to more than 4 million just a month after launch. It achieved widespread coverage in national and international media. Some of the charities involved in giving user feedback wrote blog posts about the new website for their audiences.
- The Science Media Centre provides a bridge between scientists and the media, and offers advice and tips for media work.
- Sense about Science is a charity with a public engagement team that helps scientists to communicate difficult research findings simply and accurately.
- The National Institutes of Health provide a checklist for communicating science and health research to the public.
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