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Amy Ripley, Senior Communications Officer at City, University of London

18 July 2019, 10:37 UTC Share

How media engagement brings benefits for policy brokerage

There are clear benefits for academics who engage with the media to publicise their research and expertise. By learning how to explain their research to new audiences, they improve their communication skills and boost their personal profiles and that of their university.

What is less often understood, however, is the importance of including a public affairs strategy as part of a wider research communications plan.

At City, University of London, we have a dedicated PR team focused on promoting City’s world-leading research with national, international and local media. The team also ensure that, where appropriate, our research is shared with parliamentarians and policymakers in Westminster as part of a wider communications strategy to increase its impact.

At City, we have had demonstrable success with a dual media and public affairs strategy for publicising research. For example, in 2017, a study by Dr Marco Bastos and Dr Dan Mercea was the first peer-reviewed research into the presence of automated Twitter accounts during the Brexit referendum campaign.

The researchers uncovered an army of almost 13,500 fake Twitter accounts that tweeted extensively about the Brexit referendum only to disappear shortly after the vote. The Twitter bots posted almost 65,000 messages during a four-week period, with their content showing a “clear slant towards the leave campaign”.

Since its publication, the study has had a highly significant impact on public debate around the issue, official political inquiries and academic thinking on the subject.

The research was covered exclusively by BuzzFeed in an article which prompted Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, to write to Twitter asking the company for a response. The study was cited multiple times in public correspondence between Twitter and during a select committee inquiry.

The research was covered by media around the world, including BBC News, Today on BBC Radio 4, ITV News, Reuters, the New York Times, Metro, BuzzFeed News and many others.

It then had a significant political impact, and became a focus of the House of Commons inquiry into the spread of “fake news”. It has been cited in three separate briefings compiled by the House of Commons Library into alleged malicious activity linked to the Russian government.

It continues to be cited as the most robust piece of research into the Twitter ‘bots’ in the Brexit referendum.

Dr Bastos and Dr Mercea are regularly contacted by media as experts on the issue, as well as the wider subject of how social media is used and manipulated in political contexts.

As a direct result of the media coverage, Dr Bastos was invited to meet with senior executives at Twitter, which resulted in further research being commissioned.

This was a highly successful communications campaign with each successful element complementing the other. The academics’ original work with PR team and the media paved the way for successful contact with parliamentarians and policymakers which, in turn, led to further engagement with industry.

We have found that engagement with the media can help to raise the profile of a particular issue into the public consciousness and, therefore, make it a more pressing issue for those in Westminster.

However, media outreach needs to be considered carefully and undertaken at the right time to positively support policy brokerage. Depending on the complexity of the research, there is a risk that the message you are trying to get across could be misrepresented, so working with a trusted journalist in the first instance is crucial.

Amy Ripley is a Senior Communications Officer at City, University of London.

Twitter handle: @NewsfromCity

Author: Amy Ripley, Senior Communications Officer at City, University of London

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