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Finding the stories within a large research organisation 16.10.15

Research facilities are highly complex organisations – from the work they undertake to their labyrinthine structures. Overarching divisions will break down into departments that are then often subdivided into teams, each with their own unique area of study. To complicate the matter further, thousands of external partners can also visit the facilities to work on one-off projects.

CERN, as an example, is the world’s biggest science facility, with more than 2,400 permanent staff complimented by 10,000 visiting scientists, or half the world’s particle physicists. In Grenoble the GIANT innovation campus has 30,000 people working across a range of facilities, including the ESRF light source, the ILL neutron source and the EMBL for molecular biology. ILL alone has 1,500 researchers visit it every year, and more than 800 experiments are performed.

Navigating such complexity to find the stories most worth, or in need of, communicating to a larger audience can be difficult. Internal communications teams can have their work cut out monitoring the vast array of work going on in their organisations. Many just do not have the resources to oversee everything, so need to prioritise what they can promote. This often falls down to which departments are best at internal promotion. That is where a specialist external agency can add value, by coming in and actively trying to identify the most newsworthy research that can add value to a facility’s reputation and communicate the standard of work undertaken – research that might otherwise have been left unseen.

NPL's Dr Kazu Hosaka working with the NPL ytterbium ion optical frequency standard

The UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) employs approximately 700 scientists across more than 20 research areas from acoustics to electromagnetics, optical radiation and photonics to time and frequency. It has a dedicated internal communications team that helps to deliver a huge range of publications, events and a healthy digital presence – all designed to engage with thousands of stakeholders. But regularly checking a site with 35,000m² of laboratories and offices to keep abreast of the latest developments is a big task.

As such, NPL works with Proof to help find the hidden stories within its world, to engage with its people and break down highly complex measurement science to find the layers within. There are several ways we can do this, from regular check-ins with departmental heads to attending meetings and poster events. By far the most productive way we have found of identifying interesting work pre-publication is through dedicated ‘story surgeries’. These are days where the Proof team visits the laboratory and every NPL researcher has the opportunity to book a slot to meet with Proof and outline their work, whether as part of an internal team or with external partners.

Not only does this help us identify imminent stories, and upcoming research, it also helps give scientists themselves an idea of what works in the media and what they can do to raise the profile of their work. The idea when we started these sessions last year, was to raise awareness inside NPL of the value PR can have for them in terms of securing funding and achieving impact, but also of the resource that is available to them to help with this.

This week we attended one of these story surgeries. We held 7 sessions with different scientists working on projects spanning quantum detection to industrial gas monitoring. Needless to say it was quite full-on, but there really is no comparison to meeting the person undertaking the research face-to-face to help understand complex concepts and technology.

It’s amazing how many gems can come out during an informal chat about a project and, without these sessions, significant details or even whole projects could remain undiscovered. We now have a stock of brand new stories in the works for the next couple of months, that will help to raise the profile of important research. Now the work really begins, planning those stories, fleshing them out, and making them public!