“Knowledge translation” and the co-opting of research communications


Communicators need to step up our efforts to engage with KT practitioners who view communicators as “corporate mouthpieces.”

A debate has been waging in my world of health and research communications. That debate revolves around the difference between research communications and a relative newcomer to the landscape,“knowledge translation.” I received undergrad and masters degrees in communications more than two decades ago during which I studied communications theory. I have been a practicing health and research communicator since, starting with a role in which I helped connect HIV researchers to the HIV+ community in the 1990’s. As the lead communicator in a national research organization, our team involved consumers early in the research process, fed results back to them, and worked with them and health organizations to apply the new knowledge that the researchers generated.

That’s why it has irked me in recent years as the field of “knowledge translation” has suddenly begun to preach the gospel of “novel” ideas like involving “end-users in the research process” and “developing research partnerships” as territory that they have recently discovered. Not only that, but I know many research communicators who have sat through “KT training” only to be taught research communications 101, and at a not-very-sophisticated level at that. These are the sessions, most held in Toronto but many offered across Canada, in which the irk festers into an annoyance.

So what’s up? I couldn’t figure it out. But it all became clear to me in a recent article published by a collection of knowledge translations academics and practitioners. In their paper, “Knowledge Translation and Strategic Communications: Unpacking Differences and Similarities for Scholarly and Research Communications, ”Melanie Barwick et. al. examine the similarities and differences between these roles. But it is a fundamentally flawed comparison, particularly in the Canadian context.

The flaw is that they define “strategic communications” as “a corporate function that disseminates and reinforces messages in support of an an organization’s strategic plan.”

Strategic communications? What’s that? When I explored the source that they cite I was baffled. It’s an American blog written about a specific type of communication (strategic communications) which is neither practiced nor taught in Canada. Why choose this definition?  I studied communication theory and mass communication in both British Columbia and Quebec, and did not encounter such a beast. To make sure I wasn’t just “out of step” I looked up the current courses at SFU’s School of Communication. There is not a single course called “Strategic Communications.” Rather I found the kind of courses that I remember taking such as “Communication and Social Change,” and “Applied Communications for Social Issues.” I also looked at Ryerson’s School of Professional Communications which has a more “hands on focus.” Once again, something called “Strategic Communications” did not appear.

By defining the practice of communication in this very narrow (non-existent?) field, the authors of the paper set up a very false comparison. While I’m not an academic, this seems to be to be a fatal flaw of their paper.

So what is a fair definition of communications that would better fit their model?

First of all, by definition, communications is two way — there is a sender and a receiver who can and do switch places.

Collins Dictionary emphasises “exchange”:

  1. the act or an instance of communicating; the imparting or exchange of information, ideas, or feelings

In my experience, practicing research communicators are not a mouthpiece for their organization (as the authors defined it) but rather act as a means to “engage” patients, the public, policy makers, health professionals and other researchers. Many health and research communicators use communications tools and theories to bring diverse groups of people together, promote a behaviour like participating in an event, take an action on a website, get vaccinated or adopt healthier living. The tools we use to measure the impact of these interventions are “real-world” (like numbers of people who get vaccines) although the involvement of academics in measuring our impact is welcome and important for all of us to improve. Bringing about behaviour change within health organizations and measuring change are areas that communicators don’t do particularly well. “Implementation science,” or research uptake experts can fill that gap.

Of course you can find health communicators situated within hospitals and health authorities who practice “corporate communications,” — promoting the mandate and goals of the organization — but they are by no means a majority. More commonly in CIHR or NCE funded organizations, you’ll find a well trained communications professional helping to engage users early in the research discussions and continue it throughout the process, helping train and inform various stakeholders, trying to link researchers and with one another, promoting research opportunities to participants, relaying research results back to everyone involved, and creating strategies and tools to help change behaviours based on the research results. These components make up a large chunk of what knowledge translation newcomers claim as KT territory when in fact it’s been a mainstay of research communications for more than 25 years.

So what does this mean in the simmering “battle” between research communicators and KT practitioners? In my view, KT trainers and “experts” need to confess to the fact that they are not trained communicators and begin to engage communications experts to address the parts of components of knowledge translation that are related to engagement, communications and marketing (and get them to provide that training!). Communicators for our part need to step up our efforts to engage with KT practitioners who view communicators as “corporate mouthpieces.” They simply don’t understand our profession or our training.

As communicators I think we need to be somewhat ashamed that the field of knowledge translation has been more successful than we have in consolidating (and communicating!) their value. Health and research communicators need to own our space and that means integrating ourselves further into academics teams.

It also means doing more to explain our tool box to KT practitioners. Like the theory behind great interaction design and how it can help promote online behaviours. Or how nudging and theories like it can impact better health. We also need to encourage communications academics at Canadian universities to engage with the KT academics and contribute to the field.

What I’d like to see? How about a few more good-natured public debates between health and research communicators and our KT colleagues? Let’s liven up some national conferences with this debate in an effort to use all of the expertise around the table to achieve mutual goals.

Or what about linking up with a WHO initiative to create a network of communicators and “research uptake” experts. Come to think of it, the pairing of communications and research uptake experts seems to cover the full spectrum of “knowledge translation” without one trying to co-opt the other. Maybe this is a wave of the future? Could we be in a post-knowledge-translation era? That was fast!