Whether you work in an academic institution or an international corporation, public relations and communications should play an important role in laboratory management. By being able to consistently deliver coherent communications, you can ensure that you will be in a position to build support among your key constituents and create sustainability for your laboratory.
From recruiting and fundraising to building a lab’s reputation among peer organizations and in your community, a formal communications program can help you meet your goals. There are no “cookie cutter” solutions to building an effective program but there are some best practices that will help guide you towards a solution that works.
Minding your message
Everything that you say publicly, and sometimes privately, is like a ripple in the water. Communications, often called public relations or community relations, is the process of proactively identifying and managing these ripples so they do not transform into tidal waves that could negatively impact the perception of your lab.
A good first step in managing these ripples is minding your message. A message is not only made up of the words that you use to describe the work your laboratory is doing, but also the manner in which you deliver them. An answer of “yes” to these questions will give you an idea if you are on the right track towards minding your message:
- Do you have a communications plan?
- Do you have a staff member who has primary responsibility for managing communications?
- Have you or any member of your lab been formally trained as a spokesperson?
- Are you proactive in talking about good news and prepared with a crisis plan for responding to bad news?
Each of these questions gets to a similar point, that is, to be truly mindful of your message you should include communications as a formalized part of your lab’s management and develop a plan that meets your specific needs. In an era where information is circulated around the world in real-time and a teenage blogger can break a story to an audience larger than a major news outlet, minding your message has never been more important.
At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the communications function is so important that they have employed a team of professionals to mind their message. Billy Stair, the Director of Communications and External Relations, agrees that communications is a vital part of laboratory management. He notes, “Without a formal communications program, we would have no effective or consistent way to build relationships with the people that are important to our organization.”
Planning is indispensable
Dwight D. Eisenhower has been credited with saying that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The point he is making is that it is not necessarily the plan itself but rather the learning instilled through the planning process that serves one well.
There are as many ways to approach planning as there are labs. However, key components of any successful communications planning should include an analysis of your communication goals, the identification of your key audiences, the development of messages for each audience, training of spokespeople, and the selection of media necessary for successfully delivering information.
“One of the major roles we play in supporting laboratory and research teams is helping them develop materials that speak to particular audiences,” said Ana Kapor, Public Relations Manager at Applied Biosystems. “For instance, if we know that a particular research team will be presenting a poster at an upcoming conference, we will work with them to make sure that the poster coherently hits all the necessary points for a scientifically focused audience. Depending on the findings, we may also issue a press release that would speak to a broader group of people, such as our investors, customers, and in some cases, even our competitors.”
Crisis planning is also important. Key to consider are the identification of spokespeople, a roles and responsibilities matrix, and a “call-down” list that indicates who must be contacted immediately and what specific information they will need.
“We practice our crisis plan at least three times a year,” said Oak Ridge’s Stair. “Fortunately, we have never had to employ our training in a real crisis but by going through the procedures, we not only build the team’s confidence in dealing with crisis situations, we discover things that make our plan better. For example, we determined that we needed an offsite meeting location so we could focus on managing our communications and media outreach without a laboratory in crisis as a backdrop.”
Honesty and openness
Effective communications means more than issuing press releases, writing newsletters, and speaking to the media. Your laboratory’s communications program must reflect a genuine commitment to open dialogue with your key audiences. This commitment is central in helping to shape opinion and leveraging your reputation to advance your laboratory’s goals.
Many organizations offer formal guidance on issues of honesty and ethics in research. These codes should extend to all communications programs. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute publicly states on their web site their commitment to honesty, “For the public to trust medical research, it must be clear that a standard of complete honesty is always upheld.”
For a stark reminder on the importance of honesty, you need to look no further then the debunked stem cell research conducted by Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk of the Seoul National University in South Korea. Not only did he lose his job, he did an incredible disservice to the field of stem cell research, which has expended significant communications resources to build its reputation as a promising new area of scientific discovery.
Timing it just right
Knowing when to say something is almost as important as what you say. Appropriate timing can build anticipation, diminish anxiety, and alleviate speculation. Special events, conferences, and significant research milestones are all common opportunities for reaching out to your key audiences. In addition, taking advantage of trends and recent news that pertains to your work can offer you the opportunity to provide expert commentary and support the work conducted by your lab. Working with your communications team to identify stories on which you can comment will not only prepare you for when opportunities arise but also identify occasions for proactively delivering information to your key audiences.
Part of the job description
Oak Ridge’s Stair recommends to all new and veteran lab managers that, “Communications is a vital part of your job. It will help you create the tools for communicating what you are doing to the people that will make the decisions that sustain your work. You cannot be successful if you cannot effectively communicate.”
Fortunately, there are myriad resources available that can help you meet your communications goals. Many laboratories have access to institutional or lab-based communications staff to help them create actionable plans. For those that do not, there are external resources that can help. Many local colleges and professional organizations, such as the Public Relations Society of America and the Clinical Laboratory Management Association, offer training programs that can build a laboratory manager’s communications skill set.
Taking time to create a formal communications program will not only help you build awareness about your laboratory’s work, it will serve you well in preparing for your inevitable role as spokesperson, recruiter, fundraiser, and team leader.
Colin Sanford is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Greenwich, CT. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.