Why Academics Need to Learn the Local Language of Media Training

It can be frustrating to be in a foreign country and unable to speak the local language. The messages we try to communicate are not understood. Ordering at a restaurant can be a wild adventure resulting in a meal at our table that we didn’t have in mind. There actually could be risks involved as the inability to speak a country’s local language can sometimes lead to unpleasant circumstances.

This analogy rings true for many academics in terms of their external communications efforts. There are feelings of fear and uneasiness when it comes to interacting with journalists, writing content for their owned platforms or disseminating information and connecting with others using social media.

Here’s a generalization about how a “media untrained” academic feels about external communications:

  • Social media is a waste of time — how can years of research be distilled into a 140-character tweet? I don’t want to be mis-understood.
  • Journalists are just out to get me and they want to dumb down my research.
  • I don’t have time to write blog posts.

On the contrary, other academics comfortable with external communications will see the following about the same exact scenarios:

  • With a social media plan, I can continually communicate different aspects of my research / areas of expertise, thus putting my knowledge to the service of society. I can also network on an ongoing basis, thus opening my career to new possibilities.
  • Of course journalists don’t want to hear the three-hour story of my research; they need to incorporate sound bites into their stories. Thus, I need to simplify my message, avoid speaking in jargon and demonstrate the newsworthiness of my ideas. This will make me a go to source for journalists, thus giving me — and my institution — ongoing brand visibility in different media outlets. What an exciting opportunity I have to communicate my ideas through different blogs.
  • While academic research remains the lifeblood for me as academic, the opportunity to communicate via a blog post — written in 1 hour and not over the course of 1 year — can help me build an audience and communicate with them regularly. Thus, I am well positioned to promote books, programs and my research.

The reality is that most academics are trained to speak to academic audiences, not public mainstream audiences, as part of their education. Hence more academics naturally have the mindset of the first person described.

Of course there are academics that are naturally gifted communicators and can resonate with the second person described. These are the equivalent of those people who seem to learn a foreign language after picking up a book for a few hours. But these individuals are few and far between.

Then there are the individuals who were in the first category, but moved over to the second category because they were either properly trained or learned through trial and error. In a sense, these are individuals who had a negative experience in a country because of the communication barriers, but then learned the language, returned to the same country and had a completely different and positive experience.

Just like most anyone can learn a foreign language if they put their mind to it, so too can any academic learn the skills to communicate through social media and the traditional press. But it takes time and a concerted effort.

There are institutions that offer media trainings and do so rather effectively. The one flaw is that these are usually one-off sessions. Frequently, the attendance for these sessions is sparse as these in-person sessions are conducted at a time when academics are either in the classroom, involved with a research project or travelling. Many institutions don’t offer any trainings at all.

To fill the void, I just unveiled a new online media training program that is designed to give academics guidance on developing a personal PR strategy and the tools to execute it. Academics can consume the content on demand and use the course materials throughout the duration of their career as ongoing resource.

There are simply too many risks to take part in external communications without being properly trained. We have all heard stories of individuals whose digital footprints have been smeared because of something related to their external communications. At the same time, putting your head in the sand and not taking part in external media opportunities is also a risky proposition. You leave so many opportunities and benefits on the table, as described in the mindset of person B above. Academia is increasingly moving in a digital direction. Having no presence at all leaves you vulnerable.

While some will always be negative about travelling abroad, others will view this positively, knowing it can stretch them and create new opportunities. External communications for academics can be the same way. Don’t go into this land unprepared, fumbling through the equivalent of your pocket dictionary as you communicate your ideas. Whether it be using the aforementioned course that I’ve put together, leveraging your institution’s media training services or finding your own personal PR support from outside your school, invest the time to be media trained. Confidently “translating” your academic work into mainstream audience language can open your world to new horizons.

Kevin Anselmo is the Founder of Experiential Communications, a consultancy providing training and support to higher education audiences. More information is at www.experientialcommunications.com.