In a post-truth world, it strikes me that the role of faculty at research-oriented universities is more crucial than it was even just a decade ago. Professors remain one of the most credible sources of information in our society. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, when it comes to being a trusted source of information, academics still rank at the top with a 63 score.
There are two primary areas for which faculty are quoted in the media: their research and their expertise in an industry or sector. For both, the title “professor” is an important one – we “profess” to know something. That profession is not based on one person’s opinion, but rather on in-depth study into a topic. For almost all full-time faculty, our terminal degree was a PhD or MD. To earn a PhD you spend years studying a topic in depth and making a small contribution to the sum of human knowledge in a narrow area. It is this base of learning how to do careful, thoughtful research that a faculty member brings to broader conversations in the media.
Stick to your knitting
As a faculty member, I believe that you must take care to only comment on areas that lie within your field of expertise. Naturally, we have opinions on many things – such as who should play on what line for the Montreal Canadiens – but we bring no more particular insight to the discussion than any other interested fan. I have been studying CEO leadership for more than 25 years and so I might comment on Geoff Molson as the CEO of the Canadiens, but I remain quiet about on-ice strategy. (Other than in the locker room with the guys after our regular Monday night hockey game – but to be honest they don’t pay much attention to my opinions either.)
To my mind, the starting place for commenting to the media is based on our research. After the base of your PhD, your research often broadens out as you develop the skills and the research experience needed for bigger topics. In a faculty member’s early days, others may reach out to media on their behalf to pitch their ideas. It is often university media departments, media people with academic journals or more senior faculty that point out how your research might be of interest to a broader audience. Over time, the media may start reaching out to the individual researcher directly, as they become recognized as a go-to person for a particular area of research and thinking. Another way to promote your research better is by writing opinion pieces for newspapers, journals and other publications – again this gets you in the “Rolodex” of journalists.
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What motivates a professor to do this is that we often read and hear a lot of silly and sometimes dangerous opinions about something we know a considerable amount about. Thus, we are moved to help nudge the world’s thinking in a healthier and sounder direction. Beyond the particular research we talk about, having our research in the media reminds others of the value university research bring to society, and reinforces the brand of our particular university in the minds of alumni, current and future students, and the public in general.
Not all research, even at the business school, is of broader interest; for example, some of the research done my colleagues in finance is generally of interest to a more specialized audience. This may well be true for other disciplines across the university, as well. However, other subjects like my recent research on introverts, ambiverts and extroverts in the executive suite is of much broader interest. However, it does take some work sometimes to write in a way that appeals to a broader audience well still doing justice to the limitations of our research.
I have, over time, developed two voices: one for the academic journals I publish in and a different, less academic, more down-to-earth one for the more popular books I write and when I comment to the media. I have authored or co-authored 28 refereed journal articles; a few years ago, I realized that I was speaking to a few hundred people in the world who were also very interested in research on globalization in the ancient and medieval world. Inspired by his impact of the world of management by colleague Henry Mintzberg, I wanted to reach a broader audience. I wrote an “airport” book based on my work with a colleague on known world globalization in the Assyrian and Roman Empires (you can imagine my delight when I saw it on sale at Heathrow airport). This was reviewed in a number of prominent outlets and reached a much bigger audience than my previous academic articles. Part of adopting a more populist voice was to reduce the 1,500-plus footnotes in the academic version of the book to around 500 endnotes – businesspeople, the target market, appear to not like footnotes but are relaxed about endnotes. My co-author and I also wrote in more accessible language.
Do your homework
Beyond research, many of us comment on an industry or sector that we know well, perhaps through previous work experience, research, consulting or otherwise. In my case, when I moved from Oxford to McGill University, I suspected that there were two companies in Montreal that the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal would call me about: Air Canada and Bombardier. Having done executive teaching at British Airways and similar firms in Europe, I knew a fair bit about the airline industry. And, as it turns out, living in Montreal where both are headquartered means that many neighbours, acquaintances, people I play hockey with and colleagues are current or former employees of Bombardier or Air Canada, giving me a wonderful network of people that I could gain in-depth background from when I comment.
For example, I co-taught an undergraduate class this past year with a friend who was a vice-president of Bombardier who was quite involved with the C Series of jet airliners. So, when it was given to Airbus, I had heard a considerable amount about the C Series for a number of years from this person, as well a former CEO of Bombardier that co-taught another class, and so on. This makes me a better source – a source that has done their homework. It has turned out to be a two-way street, as there are some very sharp journalists at the major media from whom I learn about further insights on Bombardier and Air Canada. If you do your research before you comment, you may not always be perfect but you get it reasonable right. A former CEO of Bombardier told me one time that he never substantially disagreed with any of my comments on Bombardier in the press – encouraging words to hear.
In a post-truth world I believe that faculty can provide a needed antidote to some of the foolishness the world hears from all too many sources.
Karl Moore is an associate professor in the Desautels Faculty of Management and was a 2017 recipient of an Outstanding Achievement honour for Public Engagement Through Media from McGill University.