ComLab: Building a science communication profession in Russia

In 2013, research revealed that 70% of Russians couldn’t answer basic science-related questions. The government partnered with an IABC EMENA member in that country to develop a way to increase the visibility of Russian science. The project won a total of four IABC Gold Quill Awards in 2015. Read this fascinating case study to inspire your own Gold Quill entries.

 

In 2013, a number of studies revealed a huge gap between the scientific community in Russia and Russian society. An annual survey by Russia’s Higher School of Economics (HSE) showed that up to 70% of Russians couldn’t answer basic questions related to science (eg “Is an electron bigger than an atom?”). A possible cause of this disconnect? According to the same study, only 7% of Russians read science news.

Later in 2013, a survey by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti focused for the first time on how science was represented in the Russian media. It showed that 85% of stories related to science featured foreign scientific news, and out of a mere 15% dedicated to Russian science, half were unreliable. The research also revealed an unbelievable figure: in a country of 140 million people, only about 270 journalists specialise in science reporting.

Lack of understanding of and interest in science can have a serious effect on a country’s ability to innovate. Russian science seemed to have found itself in an information vacuum. In addition, Western media practice shows that quality media coverage and external communications are essential for scientific organisations to successfully compete for grants, students, employees and investment.

The Russian Venture Company (RVC), a government fund of funds and a development institute responsible for fostering and promoting Russian innovations, partnered with SPN Communications to develop a way to increase the visibility of Russian science.

SPN conducted the first ever multi-aspect research of communication practices in Russian scientific and educational institutions to examine the interaction between three key audiences: scientists, journalists, and those whose job is to connect the first two. The research showed that there were just 0.4 communication practitioners per 1,000 employees in scientific organisations (under 400 nation-wide), versus 7 per 1,000 in European science organisations. Only 22% of institutions had press offices, and 82% of experts said external communications in Russian scientific organisations were poor or very poor.

The first ComLab event, which brought Russian scientists and journalists together to learn how best to collaborate with each other.

The first ComLab event, which brought Russian scientists and journalists together to learn how best to collaborate with each other.

The solution

The long-term strategic goals of the project are to improve the relations within the science and education/media and society/business ecosystem, and to make professional external communications a key part of Russian science.

The goals were to:

  • To improve communication competency of science representatives, as indicated by scientific institutions creating press offices and social media pages, hiring PR managers, etc.
  • To improve the quality of media coverage of science.

The objectives and KPIs for specific tools and vehicles were:

  • News media will carry at least 100 stories as a direct result of the project, including at least 30 on scientific research.
  • Reach an audience of at least 1,000,000 in traditional media and 100,000 unique users in social media.
  • Gather at least 80 representatives from the target audiences at events and at least 100 in a Facebook community.
  • Engage at least five scientific and educational organisations in co-operation.
  • Receive at least 20 entries to a contest for science communicators.
  • Create an online news aggregator. Outputs: no less than 15,000 unique visitors; audience reach in social media (messages with direct mentions of the service) of 180,000. Outcomes: Usage of the service by both scientists and journalists.
  • An objective of 30 news pieces published by science representatives monthly; at least 20 media clips for which this platform would be a source.
Scientists and journalists sharing ideas at ComLab.

Scientists and journalists sharing ideas at ComLab.

 

When developing the strategy, the team was at the crossroads: Should we follow the classic model, generating coverage and talking to the media for scientists, or should we teach them how to do that, fostering a new profession, science communicators? The second route was new territory, but addressed the root problem. So “Communication Lab,” or “ComLab” was launched: a platform and community where scientists could experiment with PR. Considering our goals, the tactics we chose were educational, and encouraged interaction and content creation.

The team conducted educational and networking events to better understand why the dialogue between scientists and journalists is not happening, gathering both audiences in one place and asking them directly. Each event featured workshops to help participants improve their communication, content creation, writing and storytelling skills. It was also a networking platform, with more than 450 participants (out of a total of 700 science communicators and science journalists combined nationwide).

For the first event, Lab.1, we gathered people from science, media, business and PR to discuss the issue and work out the format for future events together. Russian and foreign experts volunteered to give workshops on science communications to their colleagues, and participants demonstrated a demand for such knowledge.
This project won a total of four IABC Gold Quill Awards in 2015. Learn more about the awards and how to enter in 2016.

We also gathered 15 experts from the media and scientific institutions to brainstorm about our online science news aggregator project: what both sides needed, what functions this service should fulfil, etc.

The second event, Lab.2, included lectures, discussions and workshops as well, and also a kind of “speed dating” session: science representatives got a chance to tell a story about their work to the media; journalists, in their turn, told about their outlets and interests. This networking resulted in 12 pilot press visits by leading nationwide news outlets to research institutions, leading to high-quality stories.

We also organised Saturday Labs, a series of workshops for science communicators and future science journalists at the Faculty of Journalism of the Moscow State University.

At the final event, authors summarised the results of the project to date, gathered feedback and discussed how ComLab should develop further.

A pool of more than 100 experts was gradually formed, which included representatives of relevant educational institutions, companies and state authorities, journalists and bloggers, as well as renowned foreign experts (e.g. the CERN communication group famous for popularisation of the Large Hadron Collider). They were involved in all activities as consultants, authors and speakers.

The project also included:

pic3A ComLab Facebook page. A Facebook page was created to connect our community outside events and enable their peers from across Russia to join it. The communication team uses the page to announce events, share project news, useful materials, and the first PR successes of the members, to inspire others.

The Formula of Science PR Guidebook. The first-ever guidebook in Russian that compiles case studies and best practices in science communications. The guidebook was presented at the final ComLab event and distributed online via our owned platforms, the media and communications industry and science associations.

pic4Online science news aggregator “The Open Science.” This project was launched on the platform of Theory&Practice, one of Russia’s most popular educational portals. The Open Science is a unique online platform where Russian scientists can register and publish their news themselves, and journalists can use it as a source and contact the author. All content is revised by a special editorial board that makes sure the text going to the media is interesting and clear.

Communication Lab award. The first-ever prize rewarding both science communicators and journalists for masterful pieces they crafted together.

News digests. Each digest summarised project news, gave hands-on examples and links to useful materials (the PR guidebook, The Open Science, etc). We also included participants’ success stories with the best media materials, presentations and experts’ advice.

The results

Outputs

  • A total of 661 science-popularisation enthusiasts gathered on Facebook, and 453 attended events (against a key performance indicator of 80).
  • More than 100 scientific and educational organisations were involved in the project (against a key performance indicator of five).
  • ComLab generated 239 unique media pieces (vs an objective of 100), 89 of which featured scientific research and achievements (against a goal of 30). Media outreach was 85,273,226 (over 50% of Russia’s population), against an objective of 1,000,000. Although reaching a wide audience wasn’t our key objective at this stage, such a significant result was achieved because we’ve managed to engage major nationwide outlets, taking the topic out of specialised media to the federal level.
  • 44 entries were submitted for the ComLab Award (against a KPI of 20).
  • A total of 152,289 people were reached through with direct mentions of Communication Lab in social media, versus a goal of 100,000.

Outcomes

  • Improved quality of science coverage in the Russian media.
  • While the total number of materials on science in 2014 increased by 5,378 pieces (4%), the share of media hits dedicated to scientifically important events (conferences, science festivals, etc) and research work of Russian scientists increased by four percentage points (76% vs 72%). In absolute numbers, the volume of media hits on scientific research and science events increased by 10%.
  • The number of pieces on breaking scientific news defined as “big” and “significant” (discoveries, major forums, etc) increased by 22%.
  • The language of media pieces on scientific topics is getting more specific; particular disciplines are mentioned more frequently, and general terms (scientists) are being substituted by specialised ones (physicists, microbiology, etc).
  • The number of analytical materials on science in the media increased more than three-fold (by 25,423 pieces) versus a KPI of 5%, showing increased media interest in scientific topics.
  • Thirty-two authors registered on The Open Science, and 62 pieces were posted in two months (31 monthly, against a goal of 30). The Open Science is becoming the first place to publish big science news and thus is an important source for the media. For example, in January 2015, one of the ComLab members used it as the only platform to announce their discovery, which was then covered by over 30 media outlets within a week, including four of the largest news agencies and two national TV channels.
  • In a Facebook poll, 90% of participants said the ComLab content was useful and interesting to them.
  • ComLab participants launched several popular science projects as a result of networking, including a new magazine.

Most important, at least four participating science institutions opened press offices, hired PR managers and created social media pages, noting that they were inspired by the project. Several ComLab members, in turn, were employed as science communicators. Thus, a new profession, and a demand for it, is being shaped in Russia.

 

Learn more about the Gold Quill awards and how to enter in 2016.

 

About Andrey Barannikov

Andrey Barannikov

Andrey Barannikov

Andrey Barannikov is CEO of SPN Communications, one of the oldest and largest communication agencies in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), with offices in Moscow; St Petersburg, Russia; Kiev, Ukraine; and Almaty, Kazakhstan. He has 25 years of experience in PR, and is the vice president of the Russian Public Relations Association (RASO).

This article was originally posted on gq.iabc.com on 5 December 2015