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Communications professionals: Vital to scientific teams

Cindy McConnell
Director, Office of Communications and Public Liaison,
Office of Communications & Public Liaison (OCPL)

As the new NIA Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL) director, I’m delighted to be leading an established, talented staff of professionals during this exciting time of NIA’s evolution and momentum. My team and I look forward to working with you on strategies to amplify NIA’s rapidly expanding portfolio of scientific research, but we need your help!

Planning ahead is key

You celebrate the brief glory of a newly published paper with your research team. You also imagine how word of your important findings will spread, but did you alert your institution’s communications team when the paper was accepted for publication, or ideally, even earlier? Far too often, this step is an afterthought or forgotten completely. Engaging your communications experts early on will avoid the need to commiserate later over lost opportunities.

Effective, quality science communications designed to most effectively communicate the significance of your work take time. For example, an NIH news release can take 3 to 4 weeks to write, edit, and clear through program staff, collaborators, and leadership. In addition, there can be website, video, and other communications needs that require thought and strategic planning. NIA grantee organizations generally have similar processes and timelines that ideally include coordinating NIA-supported news with the NIA OCPL team.

It’s why we’re here

Communications professionals play a critical role in research because of their expertise in disseminating clear, accurate information about scientific advances and related efforts to key audiences beyond a scientific journal’s subscribers. They can help promote your findings to a broader research community; legislators; journalists; older adults, their caregivers and support organizations; foundations; and other federal agencies.

What’s more, incorporating communications professionals as integral members of NIA-supported scientific teams is in line with the NIA mission to disseminate information about aging and research advances. Effective communication is also a priority in the NIA strategic directions plan, specifically to: increase awareness and promote adoption of evidence-based strategies to improve the health and quality of life of older adults; and to disseminate information to the public, medical and scientific communities, advocacy organizations, and policy makers.

The process

When presented with a new communications opportunity, communicators often begin by seeking answers to questions such as:

  • What is the goal for the information dissemination, i.e., who do we want to reach, and what do we want them to do? Is this goal realistic and achievable?
  • What is our timeline for announcing the news? Are there budget limitations regarding how we will share the information?
  • What messages do we want to send and to which target audiences? Should these messages first be tested through a survey or focus group?
  • Were there outside collaborators, such as other NIH -supported scientists or advocacy organizations with whom we’ll want to coordinate an announcement?

Once these and perhaps additional questions are answered, communicators can best identify and recommend short-term and long-term strategies and plan accordingly for the information rollout. Examples of tactics can include but are not limited to: press releases and other proactive media relations; social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube; email alerts; and fact sheets. Or, your work might be promoted as a website research highlight, or feature story, or added to NIA scientific staff presentations, of course crediting you.

After the communications rollout, like scientists, communicators rely on data to help evaluate success. For example, did a news release result in significant media coverage? Was a Twitter message shared broadly? Was there a spike in related web content traffic? These types of analytics can help inform best practices for future outreach endeavors.

Connect with your communicators

The bottom line is, if you think your latest research is newsworthy, give your communications team as much of a heads up as possible. Want to learn more? Reach out today to your institution’s communicators and invite them to join your team. The NIA news team can be reached at or 301-496-1752. We are eager to hear from you and help spread the word about your work!