I was standing on a registration desk at a recent COMPAS event, taking names and directing people. I said to a person registering ‘help yourself to some free COMPAS materials’, she responded by getting quite excited and said ‘ooh, great, I love a freebie’. Her response made me genuinely pleased and probably meant that I foisted another pen on her. Later on though I started to think, should I really have been so pleased that the merchandise was picked up and that the event looked slick and professional (thanks mainly to Ida Persson's hard work)? – does any of the fluff actually matter?
I suppose this question gets to the heart of what it is to do communications work for an academic organisation. Some colleagues might argue that it doesn’t matter what things look like, it is the intellectual quality that is important. I agree to an extent, but would respond that good packaging can’t actually harm the academic product.
My time in Comms
I started work for the University of Oxford in 2001. I was hired on a one year contract as an ‘Information Manager/Administrative Secretary’ for the ESRC Transnational Communities Programme. I vividly remember walking in on my first day to find the office awash with paper. We were already imagining a paperless society by this stage – but it certainly hadn’t reached this part of the university. (Mind you, my husband recounts a time in the geography department when the support staff consisted of secretaries that would type up lecture notes and a photographer who would prepare images and slides.)
Whilst sorting out the paper, my new job also involved grappling with learning html and website management, early versions of the Microsoft package and still preparing OHPs from time to time. ‘Information Manager’ to me seemed a strange title at the time (in fact I did get lots of questions about the IT facilities because apparently that is what my title suggested I did), but maybe it wasn’t as far wrong as I thought. Things have moved on very quickly in a very short space of time! We now have outreach tools, like this blog and other social media channels that are increasingly used to promote academic work, tools that weren’t even options a few years ago.
Although I never quite figured out what my job title actually meant, I did gradually manage to make sense of things and realised that a big part of my job was to help package up 23 very different research projects into final programme events and publications that would please our funder (the ESRC) and appeal to ‘users’ (policy makers and practitioners).
My boss at the time, Steve Vertovec was very good at seeing the applications of academic research and how to reach non-academic audiences, so I was taught a huge amount very quickly. My contract was extended and a role for me was written in the bid we made to the ESRC for COMPAS. Since then I have found myself involved in a huge variety of projects and no two weeks end up being the same, which to an extent might explain why I am still here more than 11 years on.
Michael Keith has line managed me more recently and he is equally as open and encouraging of the centre’s communications activities. My role has existed partly in response to outreach and dissemination imperatives set by the ESRC but more importantly because both the Directors that I have worked for have been innovators in terms of trying different communications techniques and wanting to get the research outside of the academic world.
So is the (re)packaging important?
I guess if you think the answer is ‘no’ then you are reading a blog post written by the wrong person. I think the way things look does matter to an extent – why else are iPads and Dysons coveted over cheaper alternatives? The academic industry is evolving in a way that requires us to reach different groups of people in different ways and prove that our work has not only reached them but has had an ‘impact’. We are increasingly borrowing techniques from the corporate world for doing this, but using them in a way this appropriate to our cause.
Having an impact beyond the academy is now something that is regularly measured by most organisations funding research in order to prove that they are getting something for their investment. I would argue that many people appreciate something that is easier to understand and remember than a 90,000 word monograph and having something that is tailored to their interests is more engaging. However, this does not mean that the heavyweight monograph should not be written or that packaging matters more than substance. For me though we need to both. I know this makes researchers groan, but this is also why communications specialists are useful and why there are so many of us nowadays.
Ok, but still, do we need the promotional pen?
Like it or not branding serves a purpose, it makes things more memorable and conveys a short hand profile of a complicated organisation. It might even jog a memory to something more substantial – I wonder if that woman uses her COMPAS pen now and remembers the lecture that Loic Waquant gave.
It’s the brand that ties the dots between different research elements – you see you can’t help but think of our logo, can you?