I recently spoke with Mark Maremont, a financial reporter with The Wall Street Journal who has learned to pay attention to academic research. While most research that crosses his desk doesn’t pertain to his beat, he knows a good business study sometimes can lead to a major story. Such was the case a couple of years ago when he came across a paper by Erik Lie, associate finance professor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business in Iowa City, and Randall Heron, associate finance professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in Bloomington.
Lie and Heron posited that senior executives at many companies were backdating options to maximize their compensation. After reading the study, Maremont and three of his colleagues—Charles Forelle, James Bandler, and Steve Stecklow—followed the story to its conclusion. As a result of their journalism, more than 140 companies were investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, more than 70 top executives quit or were fired, and ten executives faced criminal charges. Not only that: In 2007, all four reporters won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the story.
Maremont told me that if he hadn’t already read Lie and Heron’s paper, he might not have taken a closer look in 2005, when the SEC investigated a company called Mercury Interactive Corp. for its abuse of stock options. “When Mercury Interactive all of a sudden got rid of three top executives,” he says, “I thought, ‘Holy cow! This is real!’”
This is a dramatic example of the impact that great business school research can have on business practices. But for a study to realize that kind of impact, journalists must be aware of it—more important, they must understand why their readers need to read more about it.
“Thousands of papers published throughout the year may be good papers, but they’re not interesting from a journalistic perspective,” Maremont says. If business schools want to make a greater impact on business practices, they must know what it takes to make academic research interesting and useful to business journalists.
What Makes It ‘Interesting’?
I spent ten years working as a journalist and another 11 years as a public relations consultant helping business schools, liberal arts colleges, universities, medical centers, think tanks, and foundations enhance their reputations and visibility. In that time I learned that, when it comes to garnering media coverage, it doesn’t matter how well an academic study is done. If it’s not connected to mainstream interests, its findings won’t make it into mainstream media. Whether a business school wants to capture the attention of a potential Pulitzer Prize winner, or just find a larger audience for its faculty’s best work, it first must identify, package, and pitch research-driven stories in ways that are compelling to journalists.
Counterintuitive findings, for example, are more interesting to reporters than those that empirically prove what’s already considered conventional wisdom. Studies with provocative “punch lines” get noticed. Findings that reflect current trends, such as the mortgage crisis, or that impact a large number of people, such as individual investors or employees, are more likely to make it into a story a reporter is already writing.
“Interesting” research is in the eye of the beholder, however. For The Wall Street Journal’s Maremont, it’s this: “Either it breaks new ground or it potentially uncovers wrongdoing,” he explains. He adds that the most newsworthy research highlights something “that’s a little questionable about how corporations or financial institutions work.” Louis Lavelle, an editor at BusinessWeek, has written extensively about corporate management and now spearheads the magazine’s business education rankings. He has a slightly different definition of “interesting” when it comes to business research. “The obvious thing is that it needs to have broad importance and interest to a broad audience,” says Lavelle. “Some of the research that comes out of business schools is too narrow.”
Bridging the Gap
Whether business school academics want their research to appeal to mainstream media is a matter of some debate. For every professor who’d like to have her study featured by The New York Times, there is another who is perfectly happy to have his accepted by a top peer-reviewed journal read by only a few hundred fellow professors. But there is no doubt that a small but growing number of business school scholars are eager for their research to engage a wider audience.
For example, in August 2008, at the American Academy of Management’s annual conference in Atlanta, professors from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor organized a panel titled, “Who are we reaching? The real and intended audiences for business school research.” The panel featured academics, journal editors, and business journalists from outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Harvard Business Review and The Academy of Management Journal. The impetus for organizing the panel was to explore new ways to bridge the gap between management researchers and those who cover business for the most influential media outlets.
“When we look to a professional field like medicine, we can see that it does a better job in some ways of making its findings more intelligible and accessible to people,” says Monica Worline, an assistant professor of organization and management at Goizueta. Worline notes that the business press moves fast—so fast that many business academics may think that an esoteric study may not warrant its attention. Still, she adds, “If we were able to translate those findings better, that might not be the case.”
Achieving Media Relevance
Business academics can make their research more compelling—and relevant—to a broad audience of readers, if they do the following:
Avoid the “too-narrow” trap. Academics can ask questions that interest those beyond their disciplines, to reach the concerns of a broader base.
Make it snappy. Business-themed research will grab attention if it offers punchlines that matter. Schools should keep journalists in mind, highlighting their most compelling, surprising, topical, or counterintuitive findings.
Get creative. Business schools can hire in-house media personnel or outside consultants to identify, translate, and package research for public consumption in every medium, from traditional outlets to the blogosphere.
Reward the effort. Business school deans can make sure that faculty’s media outreach efforts are rewarded during the tenure review process.
Evaluate and translate. To find a large audience, provocative research can’t just appear in a top peer-reviewed journal or on the Social Science Research Network. Business school staff must systematically track the research that their faculty generate and devote resources to evaluating whether it might have broader media appeal. If it does, they must know how to translate that research to be relevant and accessible to a mainstream audience.
Target and broadcast. There are two ways to keep journalists in the loop. First, target the right story to the right media outlet. Financial research like Lie and Heron’s, for instance, is tailor-made for finance reporters; an on-the-ball media specialist will make sure they know about it first. On the other hand, it’s important for a school to keep the community of business reporters informed of its best research on a regular basis—media staff never know when the right story will reach the right journalist at the right moment. For that reason, business schools should consider disseminating research findings through news releases or online news feeds such as PRNewswire.com or Ascribe.org. Schools also can create their own online platforms, similar to Knowledge@Wharton and Knowledge@Emory.
Schools that pay more attention to the news value of academic research increase the likelihood that their most important studies will find a larger audience, enhancing their reputations in the process. After all, if an important role of academia is to generate knowledge, it makes sense for schools to creatively assess and disseminate that knowledge through as many channels as possible.
Peter Rooney is the former vice president of Gehrung Associates, a marketing firm that specializes in higher education and research. He recently joined Amherst College in Massachusetts as its director of public affairs.