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How Scholars Can Be Strategic Communicators

- June 12, 2013

This is our second post from the Bridging the Gap Project about its International Summer Policy Institute (IPSI) — at which Henry and I spoke today about scholars-as-bloggers.  The first post is here.  This post is by Brent Durbin.


A core part of the IPSI curriculum is strategic communication. It concerns an important question: what are the components of an outreach strategy for scholars who want to influence policy (especially U.S. foreign policy)? We tackle that question in part via specific suggestions and insights from editors at leading policy journals, op-ed pages, and blogs.

As academics, we are not usually trained – or even encouraged – to seek an audience for our research beyond the world of peer review. This leaves us ill-equipped for the policy world, a competitive place in which scholars enjoy few advantages. Lobbyists and bureaucrats understand politics better than we do; journalists write better; think tanks have better access. The only unique resource we have as scholars is our expertise. To bring our ideas and findings into the policy arena, we must adopt a style of engagement that enable us to compete effectively with these other groups for the attention of decision-makers.

While there isn’t space for every nuance covered in the workshop, here is a basic two-step summary of how to get your work in front of policymakers.

Step 1: Develop an outreach strategy. This sounds simple, and in some ways it is. But it’s not something scholars do naturally, because for most of us it’s not linked to professional incentives. To start, consider a discrete part of your research – something that you feel might have something to say to policymakers. Not all political science research has clear relevance for current affairs, but most does if you can find the right frame. Now consider the types of outreach that appeal to you and have the greatest chance of influencing the policy space you care about. These generally fall into three categories:

  • Writing for policy journals, magazines, op-ed pages, and blogs;
  • Briefing policymakers, staffers, think tanks, and journalists;
  • Media Outreach to TV, radio, print, and online news sources.

Of course, you may not know the best way to reach your target audience. When in doubt, pursue as many approaches as you can. Remember that policymakers have very little time, so often the shortest output (op-eds, blogs) can often have the biggest impact.

Step 2: Execute the strategy. This is the hard part, and for most scholars the most mysterious. How do you place an op-ed? Whom do you brief? How do you get quoted in a news piece? Your most important resource here is the public relations or media office at your college or university. These people get paid to know how, where, and when to get your research into the world. Most professors ignore them, and they’ll be happy to hear from you. They may not know all of the details of the people or outlets you want to target, but they’ll help you get the information you need.

Since our sessions today focused mostly on writing, here are some additional tips culled from our meetings with editors from Foreign Policy, The Washington Quarterly, The Washington Post, and elsewhere:

  • Have a sense of what format works best for what you want to say. In all cases, your piece should be timely and concisely written, and should add something new to the debate. Look for hooks, whether anniversaries, crises, meetings, or other events that need some context and explanation. Just don’t stop with context and explanation – you’ll need an argument too (that’s the policy impact part). And look to cover upcoming events, not those that just happened. Editors are much more interested in scene-setters than post-mortems.
  • Policy journals look for 3500-5000 words, and usually have a 3-6 month delay before publication. So be timely but not reactive, and think more about strategic debates that will be around for a while. Op-eds and other short opinion pieces (usually 700-1000 words) should be much more current and should have a clear news hook. Sometimes, this means sitting on an idea – or even a full, pre-written piece – and waiting until the right moment to freshen it up and send it out.
  • Like academic journals, most policy and news outlets publish clear guidelines for submissions. Follow them. You don’t need to be famous to get published in the Post or Foreign Policy (sure, it doesn’t hurt); if your timing and writing are good, and you follow the submission rules, your piece will get a fair hearing.
  • Always include a short pitch along with your article, usually in the body of the email. This should include your argument, why it’s timely, and why you’re the right person to write it – all in three or four sentences.

These are just a few of the lessons covered by our panelists today. The big takeaway is simply to be strategic about your outreach. Just as you try to maximize the payoff for your academic work – say, by spinning off articles from a book – there are many venues to target when trying to impact policy. The more you pursue, the bigger chance you’ll have of influencing how people in Washington and elsewhere think about your issue.