How do you successfully communicate an internationally comparative multi-actor academic project dealing with complex issues? Research projects like these tend to be long, hold multiple research goals that are pursued by different academic means (and split between work packages) and are run by a number of teams of researchers. Finally, for projects like these results most likely will be in English and described using academic terminology (which might be unknown to stakeholders that could benefit the most from the findings of these projects). Communication of projects like these is complicated – it requires bridging the gaps, translating, splitting the results in meaningful chunks and simplifying the findings without losing the complexity. The EU Guide to Science Communication gives a detailed overview of the main principles that researchers engaged in science communication should take into consideration. However, unfortunately, even this guide does not provide one predefined recipe on how to ensure success. Thus, one can be prepared to recognise various aspects of communication, but she will still have to come up with a unique cocktail that is best suited to promote the particular project. Our experience gathered while dealing with SUFISA communication allows us to suggest that one of the critical aspects of successful communication for projects like these is learning – from others, from your own experience and from critique you receive.
SUFISA is one of these comprehensive, complex and challenging projects that is difficult to communicate. Being four years long, consisting of six work packages and uniting 14 partners from all across the EU, the project posse difficulties to maintain coherent communication. Additionally, as it typically is in projects like this – the most of the conclusions that should be communicated are disproportionally generated towards the end of the project. From the beginning the project had its web page, twitter account and blog, project partners have been presenting results of the project at academic conferences and working on academic articles. However, it also can be recognised, that there were few original findings to be communicated at this stage. Furthermore, the whole communication process was somewhat overshadowed by the need to conduct the research. Thus, although project partners were discussing the need to communicate SUFISA results and although a mix of various channels to communicate results were established, in reality – there were certain discrepancies in terms of how systematically communication was followed through.
In this context, a critique raised by the official project reviewers was a thought-provoking look from outside that came just at the right moment. With less that one year in the project and with most of the empirical research done, the assessment came as a reminder that this is the time when partners should start to take communication more seriously. The reviewers were claiming that a more systematic and more comprehensive communication is needed to make sure that the messages from SUFISA reach its target audience. For project partners responsible for communication the assessment report served as a stimulus to critically reflect on what is done so far and how now when most of the project’s results are in, they should proceed with communication. This meant that the existing SUFISA communication practices had to be rethought and that project had to learn from the critique we have received.
A number of steps were taken to resolve the communication issues:
1) a task force was assembled to plan and to implement new communication strategy. Furthermore, some of the researchers restructured their responsibilities now mainly (or exclusively) dealing with communication. The task force met soon after the critique was raised and have been holding regular skype meetings ever since.
2) a vertical communication structure was created that was meant to help to ensure that all project partners could be mobilised to communicate SUFISA findings. This was done by assigning to each member of the task force a group of project partners. It was expected that the appointed person could communicate the urgency of the need to disseminate the results and could assist the partners if there were any communication-related challenges.
3) a new way how to deal with the overall project communication online was developed. First of all – the project’s homepage was updated. Second, a strategy to revive project’s social media accounts was introduced. The plan was built around the idea that the SUFISA’s social media accounts should be oriented towards presenting the diversity of evidence, results and activities across SUFISA partner countries.
4) all project partners were encouraged to audit national online space to get a better grasp of what SUFISA materials are available and where. The aim was to ensure that all the documents produced by SUFISA are publicly available and can be easily found in all partner countries.
5) finally, a communication table was developed where each of the partners was asked to note how they could use the remaining project period to communicate project results to national stakeholders. Partners were invited to develop the table so that they could monitor themselves their success.
It has been two months since we are doing this. All of us are learning. However, already now we see that project communication is becoming more intense – there are more tweets, new blog entries, new ideas on how to ensure that stakeholders hear the messages from the project and – all project partners are engaged in this process. The task force continues to plan on how to ensure that this high engagement level is maintained all through the remaining months of the project. And sure – there are still a lot of things to be done. We have been learning, and we will continue to do so. Clearly, at the beginning of SUFISA like studies researchers have to be more oriented towards studying their object. However, there is also a stage in each project where the results must be communicated. A push from outside can help researchers to better reorient from one stage to another.