Alex Waddington reflects on how a case for the benefits of blogging at The University of Manchester is gradually being made – with one big and very notable success story.
When Manchester Policy Blogs first launched in 2013, me and Prof Colin Talbot wrote an introductory post which reflected that although our University “carr[ies] out massive amounts of research”, this work doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.
We also acknowledged this was often because the key messages and implications were not communicated effectively.
The new blog site, we continued, was one of the ways we were seeking to address this, to reach a wider audience of policymakers, the media and people at the sharp end of policy decisions; the public.
Fast forward nearly two years and the initiative can be seen as something of a success. The average page views per month hover around 10,000. Getting on for 300 academics have written blogs, including many early career researchers and PhD students. Scientists, who we have found a tough group to engage in policy debates, have recently started writing for us.
We have successfully made the case for additional technical and editorial resources to improve the site and build up a rich and relevant flow of varied content. And as a result, we now get a steady stream of emails from our researchers, seeking feedback on potential blog articles they have written or asking whether we are interested in them writing on a certain topic.
We have developed a bespoke Blogging For Policy Impact workshop to help L-plated academic bloggers become more adept at crafting engaging policy-relevant pieces. The sessions are always over-subscribed and our excellent trainer, journalist and author Fran Abrams, is now in demand across the University as a blogging mentor.
So we have achieved a lot. But where we draw most encouragement is from talking to our researchers over coffee, around campus or at events. We’re starting to hear some great stories of how writing a blog has led to all kinds of things.
One early story to emerge was of a blog that led to a big US tech company – and one that the researchers had been trying to engage – suddenly getting in touch with the academics. This was all thanks to a post that took off on social media and garnered hundreds of views. There was also a story of a Select Committee researcher looking for experts, putting a term of into Google, finding one of our researchers’ blogs and picking up the phone to him for advice.
Recently we heard about how the National Audit Office sought expert input for a consultation on tax evasion after reading an academic’s blog, while another prompted Ofsted to re-publish a report with amended information, after it was challenged by a blogging researchers.
Blogs have in their own right stimulated media coverage; and in a change to traditional, departmentalised ways of working, our Blog Editor works closely with colleagues in the press office to maximise the impact of good content.
So if he gets a blog sent through on something that’s in the news, he will alert the press office to the expertise we have in-house. Meanwhile, press office colleagues fielding experts to the media encourage blogging, and signpost them to the support and outlet we offer.
But by far the starkest of example of how blogging really can work in terms of having an impact and shaping policy is illustrated by the story of Dr Gabriel Siles-Brügge, a lecturer in politics.
When I sat down with Gabe earlier this year, the story he told seemed almost unbelievable. It would be too much to describe it as a hero to zero story, but what flowed from one initial blog seemed incredible. And especially given what he was writing about – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – was hardly front page (or indeed any page) news at that time.
For a while I pondered the best way to tell this success story; how best to draw out this example to attract others to blogging, which perhaps they viewed sceptically at best and a waste of time at worst? How to avoid producing yet another PDF case study – remember that famous World Bank study which found that 31 per cent of its own PDFs were never downloaded?
You can be the judge of how effectively we have brought to life the story of how one blog post sparked a series of events, which took Gabe around the world – and ended up with a Select Committee appearance, the shaping of a recommendation to government and even a book.
We welcome your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.