Chapter 30: Reaching Mainstream Audiences: Media Tips for Academics and the Challenges of Storytelling

Philip A. Saunders

Phil Saunders has worked in Canadian newsrooms from Toronto to Regina since embarking on a journalism career in 1987. He has reported for a financial news service, edited an award-winning news website, and produced film and radio documentaries for national and international audiences. Having sat in just about every chair in a typical newsroom, Phil has a pretty good idea about what journalists might be thinking when they are putting together a story. He has a master’s in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a graduate certificate in Professional Communication Management from Royal Roads University. In addition to being the primary media contact for Royal Roads, he is an instructor in the School of Communication and Culture.

My background is in journalism, where for 15 years I worked in print, radio, and television news—both on short- and long-form content production. For the past six years, however, I’ve worked as a media-relations expert for Royal Roads University. As a result, my later career has been characterized by an intuitive understanding of mass audiences and the language most effectively used to engage them through mainstream media. Conducting proactive and reactive media relations on behalf of an academic institution has meant facilitating access for researchers to mass audiences in support of building their own positive reputation, that of the institution, and the funding agencies that support their work.

In this chapter, I will argue that in order to make research publicly relevant, academics must seek out and capitalize on opportunities found in local, regional, and national news media, or seize opportunities to tell stories to audiences through popular online media channels. In this way, academics can insert themselves and their ideas into a wider public discourse, thereby influencing how mass audiences see the world or make decisions both collectively and individually as participants in civil society. I will argue that researchers can seize the opportunity of a public conversation about their research and thus fortify a tangible connection to the lives of the people who may be in a position to support its continued funding.

In my role at Royal Roads University, I often field calls from reporters seeking commentary on specific aspects of a news story. The paradigm of the news reporter is unique in that they are often looking for a specific point of view in an effort to provide balance to their story. Thus academic experts are often called upon to provide an external, third party—dare I say “neutral”— context to a story that has a conflict (real or created) embedded into it as a narrative device by the journalist. Academic experts, depending on their personal experience with the media, can see this environment as volatile or unsafe. As a result, I often coach academics on how to pitch their knowledge on a particular subject area in a way that is both satisfactory for them and for the general news audiences they are hoping to reach.

This chapter will explore opportunities found in this environment for popularizing research. It will also provide some structural advice to academics to make research more understandable and engaging to general audiences. I won’t explore pedagogical concepts or how people understand complex ideas. I will focus on the tools of my trade and those that have been successful for academics with whom I have worked.

Finally, this chapter will attempt to show that new audiences can be reached through contemporary online communication channels, more frequently referred to as “social media” or “social networking.” I will make the argument that a refined sense of how to wedge rigorous research in a more popularly understood context of storytelling frames it for larger audiences and increases its value in the public domain.