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Why should academics produce (more) content?: A talk with UNSW’s Stuart Khan

Having academics active in public content production is a plus for research and the wider community.

They’re busy enough as it is, surely. But by being active in content production for a public audience, academics can bring advantages to the benefit of their research, their field and the wider community. As UNSW Associate Professor Stuart Khan notes, public communication is really just part of the job.

University academics are some of the most time-poor workers out there. In addition to conducting their own research and wrangling grant proposals, they are tasked with preparing course material, holding classes, managing PhD students, marking papers and enticing new, curious minds to enter into and enrich their particular discipline or field of study. It’s a role that is as demanding as it is stimulating.

Encouraging these staff members to participate in a university-wide content marketing program can be difficult for this very reason. It becomes even more challenging given that –  generally speaking – many will place their allegiance first and foremost to their own particular field, rather than to the university as a whole. They’ll identify as statisticians, or economists or geography researchers, for instance, before they see themselves as ‘a member of this particular institution’.

On the other hand, we know that content marketing for universities can be incredibly effective in boosting the brand’s image and credentials. It’s a means to engage a whole cross-section of the university audience – from prospective undergraduates and postgraduates, to industry funding bodies and future staff. Participation can come in various forms too, whether that be writing a column for the university magazine, providing commentary for a blog article, or appearing as a talking head in a video.

Rather than being hounded down and coerced into taking part, it’d obviously be a lot better if academics engaged in the program out of their own free will. For buy-in to happen, a culture of sharing has to be embedded in the institution’s ethos. And the most effective means for marketers to do this it to prove the real, valuable returns of producing content.

To glean real-world insights, Mahlab spoke with Stuart Khan, Associate Professor in Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales, who is a regular publisher on sites like The Conversation and an active voice in media commentary.

Community awareness and regard

The biggest motivation and advantage for an academic to write about their field is the most obvious, the most significant, and perhaps the most ‘noble’ in a functioning democratic society. It comes down to knowledge sharing. By providing a conduit of expert knowledge from the institution to the wider community, the public is able to stay apprised of news and events with accurate information.

Arguably, this is more important than ever in the era of ‘fake news’, where the rift appears to be growing between the general public and the so-called ‘intellectual elite’. As Brexit and the climate change debate have made clear, ‘experts’ are an increasingly vilified and embattled group, and regard for the ‘truth’ is thinning into dangerous ambivalence.

Stuart Khan’s main interest is in water recycling – an area which has been muddied by misinformation, besieged by lobby interests, and riddled with controversial views. Speaking out – whether that’s by penning articles or by making himself available to the media for comment – has been a way of preserving the integrity of the field as a source of independent facts on which stakeholders can base sound decision-making. Because of his vocal stance, Khan often finds himself the media ‘go to’ for stories relating to his field.

“The more we see science and engineering in the media, the higher regard the community will hold if things are reported accurately for the field,” says Khan. “That’s an outcome in itself.”

Industry attention

There are also hefty benefits from a partnership perspective. As Australia’s ‘Innovation Economy’ strides forward, the research and industry sectors are being increasingly wedded together to promote prosperity and wellbeing for generations into the future. In January this year for instance, the government announced as part of their National Innovation and Science Agenda two block grants for 2017. Worth $879 million (the Research Support program) and $1.01 billion (the Research Training program), funding allocation is to be driven by the returns for industry and other end-users.

While this commercial focus won’t benefit those slaving away on quantum mechanics or the literary history of the WA wheatfields, it presents a new opportunity-based approach framework for faculties.

Subsequently, there is more competition than ever for researchers to attract notice from partners – whether that’s government, research bodies or business – in order to leverage public and private funds. Participating in outreach and communication is essential to boosting an academic’s profile. Through publicising their work and establishing themselves as an engaged authorities with an interest in community and business, their chances of forming a partnership are given a boost.

“Being recognised as an expert in a certain field, and somebody that people will turn to for commentary, does definitely translate into opportunities,” attests Khan. “I’ve had numerous opportunities – jobs, consultancies, etc – that have come about because people know me from seeing my name published. It’s a direct return.”

He cites an example from 2013, when he was recognised alongside Geena Kordek by the Chief Scientist of NSW to author a commissioned report into the state’s coal seam gas industry.

“I wouldn’t say 100%, but there’s a relatively high likelihood that the Chief Scientist knew of me, and identified me as somebody to approach through that work through media outreach and commentary,” Khan says.

Graduate interest

Every researcher wants a steady influx of talented postgraduate students to help with their own research and help them grow their field. By presenting a strong voice and sharing compelling insights, academics can go a long way in invigorating interest among the enrolled.

This is “absolutely” the case, confirms Khan. He points to ‘celebrity academic’ and colleague Emma Johnston, Pro Vice Chancellor of Research at UNSW.

“She has a huge media profile and everybody that wants to do marine science wants to do it with Emma,” he says. “If you become seen as the expert and as somebody who has a lot to contribute to that field, people will definitely want to work with you.”

Content production as a role component

Buy-in from academics won’t happen if content production is framed as something they can pull off in their spare time. Indeed, for most, ‘spare time’ simply doesn’t exist. Rather than dishing out content production as an extra serving on an academic’s already loaded plate then, it should instead be factored into part of the role.

Khan already considers it as much. “If you go back to my job description formally, there’s 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% effectively service and outreach,” he says. “So public communication – trying to raise the profile of the university and field that I work in within the community – is part of my job.”

“I don’t see it as something I find ‘extra time’ to do on the side,” he continues. “It’s a core component.”

Governance to optimise submissions process

If a marketing team hopes to institute content marketing as a university-wide program, governance is critical. What is wanted and what is needed has to be clearly specified. A single editorial calendar, shared across the faculty or university, is an effective first step, ensuring a fresh, trackable cycle of topics and areas to explore. Accessible guides should also be made available, enabling academics to better adopt a unified ‘on-brand’ tone of voice. With these mechanisms and materials in place, there is a much lower chance that a laboured-on submission is torn to shreds and reconstituted out of recognition – a savaging likely to alienate writers from submitting again.

When asked about how attractive a content marketing strategy would be on uptake, Khan admitted that “at first it would take convincing.” People are always wanting you to write for websites or submit elsewhere, he says, and it’s often the case that you spend a lot of time preparing that content only to never see it again. Yet he agrees that “if you could prove the content was landing somewhere and being picked up, then I think it would be effective.”

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