How To Use Social Science Research to Improve Your Communications Strategy

By Shannon Brescher Shea, Dept. of Energy Office of Science

An effective communications office is rooted in a good communications strategy. After all, communications shouldn’t involve throwing the metaphorical spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. Most communications offices write their strategies based on long-term personal experience and best practices in public relations. But there’s a way to bring your strategies to the next level of effectiveness – incorporating findings from social science research. Social science researchers test those best practices to see if they really hold up, look into new ways of conducting outreach, and give you cold, hard statistics.

If you haven’t had to write a research paper in years, digging into the academic literature can seem daunting. But here are some steps to help it work for you.

  1. For overarching issues, like science communication or media relations, look for overviews of the subject. The National Academies has had an excellent series of colloquia on science communication as well as reports on using communications to spur behavioral changes. The CDC has an excellent handbook on crisis communications that draws from the research literature.
  2. For specific issues, focus on a research question like “What’s the ideal length for a headline?” or “What topics in public health do journalists cover most often?” Then look for individual journal articles that answer that research question. Use keywords specific to your question to search Google Scholar, regular Google, or journals relevant to that topic area. Possible journals include Social Marketing Quarterly for social marketing, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science for behavior change, the Journal of Advertising or Visual Communications for graphic design, and PR Journal or Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly for media relations.
  3. Get the article or report. While National Academies’ reports cost money to buy hard copies, the digital versions are often free. Open access journals have their papers available to all. If you find an article that you want behind a firewall, email the corresponding author for help.
  4. Find the relevant information in the paper. In most papers, it’s useful to skim the introduction and results for context. Read the discussion thoroughly to find out their findings. If you need specific statistics, refer back to the results for numbers.
  5. Find more papers as needed. In addition to continuing with your search results, look through the references at the end of a paper to see if any others may be useful.
  6. Use the information! Obviously, this is going to vary depending on the topic and strategy. Broad themes in your area can help you craft your big picture philosophy towards communication. Narrow findings can help you pick a specific tactic or decide on a specific audience to focus on.

Here’s one example of how to put it all together. As a senior writer in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, I wanted to know more about influencers on Twitter who are in the science arena. To start with, I searched Google for “science Twitter,” which brought up a number of promising links. My results included an article in the journal Science about scientists on Twitter with large followings and a blog post linking to a journal article about the spread of science articles on Twitter. Using those articles, I found other papers that they referenced. Looking over the articles, I found that of the type of scientific disciplines my office covers, physicists were the most common and influential type on Twitter. I also learned that the scientists who had more than 1,000 followers were significantly more likely to have non-scientists following them than those who had fewer than 1,000 followers. From that, I could figure out that we should focus our Twitter influencer efforts on physicists who have more than 1,000 followers.

Communications researchers want their research to be used. By taking advantage of their findings, you can make your communications strategies as effective and influential as possible.