Communication was soundly embedded in ACIAR operations from the start, with one of the functions set out in the founding legislation being ‘to communicate to persons and institutions the results of such agricultural research’.
In 1983 ACIAR engaged a consultant, Mr David Spurgeon, to develop a communication program. Mr Spurgeon came to ACIAR with excellent credentials. He was formerly Director of the Publications Division of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), former President of the Canadian Science Writer’s Association and founding editor of the Canadian journal Science Forum.
The first staff member for communications, Mr Brian Lee, was appointed in 1984. An experienced science communicator, his track record included being the founding writer and editor of CSIRO’s Ecos magazine. Brian was the founding editor of Partners in Research for Development magazine and one of the driving forces behind building up the Country Manager positions to be an effective means of in-country communication.
An early ACIAR policy determined the need to publish material about subjects important in the developing world that would not necessarily attract the attention of mainstream science.
Scientific publishing became a key tool to connect with stakeholders. The publishing program and the publication series were devised by Mr Reg MacIntyre, who was seconded for the assignment from IDRC, where he was Director of Scientific Publishing.
Since the early 1980s, the Communications Program has evolved from producing newsletters and publications and editing project final reports, with up to three scientific writers/editors employed, to an Outreach Program, with a few other names and functions in the intervening years, including Communications and Public Affairs, and Communications and Stakeholder Engagement.
ACIAR Outreach is now responsible for the creation of news and feature articles in written and video form, curation of content for the ACIAR website, participation in events and conferences as well as management of several social media channels promoting the organisation, its partners and its impact.
Over 40 years, many people have passed though the communications unit, bringing an evolving skillset to match the functions, responsibilities and technical demands required to communicate the work of ACIAR to stakeholders, end users and the general public.
With the launch of its 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027, ACIAR significantly increased investment in communication and outreach, and a new executive position was created to develop the functions of Outreach and Capacity Building.
Ms Eleanor Dean is General Manager, Outreach and Capacity Building (2017–current) and has led the process of broadening and modernising the ways in which ACIAR communicates and connects with stakeholders.
‘When I joined ACIAR in 2017 there was a very clear directive from the Minister, the Commission for International Agricultural Research, and the Chief Executive Officer that ACIAR should more actively communicate with audiences in Australia to raise the profile of the organisation.
‘This resulted in an active campaign to build our social media networks and website with high-quality digital content. Staff with video, photography and digital media skills were recruited to drive this effort.
‘Over time the Outreach Team has strengthened our domestic communication efforts to focus on stakeholders, including the agricultural community, research partners and decision-makers.’
The ACIAR Newsletter was first published in July 1983, and the second issue of the newsletter, published in November of that year, reported a readership of 5,000. Forty-four editions of the newsletter were produced, the last in January 2004. From then aspects of the newsletter were incorporated into the new-look Partners in Research for Development magazine in 2004.
The main purpose of the ACIAR Newsletter is to inform to the international agricultural research community and others interested in the field about ACIAR’s activities. In addition, it will aim to provide information on activities outside ACIAR, for example research for development programs being supported by ADAB and Australian involvement in the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
ACIAR Newsletter No. 1, 1983
Multipurpose Australian trees and shrubs was the first ACIAR monograph. Published in 1986, the book was produced by Dr John Turnbull, ACIAR Forestry Program Coordinator, to support the anticipated direction of work of the ACIAR Forestry Program. The book was produced in response to the World Bank and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) appraisal that the main thrust of forestry in the next decade would be afforestation with fast-growing trees, to address acute food and fuelwood supply problems. It was launched by Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs the Honourable Mr Bill Hayden, at the February 1987 meeting of the Policy Advisory Council.
The scientific publications program was a key component of the Communications Program to ‘communicate ... results of agricultural research’. Within a few years of commencement, three series of publications were established – Proceedings, Technical Reports and Monographs – which have endured for 40 years. Three additional series were established subsequently to publish reports on impact evaluation.
The first edition of Partners in Research for Development was released in April 1988. The magazine was developed for technical and non-technical readers.
A new look and new format Partners in Research for Development magazine was released in June 2004, combining the best of the old-style Partners with the corporate ACIAR Newsletter. There was increased focus on project teams and the people who benefit from better policies, increased productivity and more sustainable agriculture, as a result of ACIAR-supported research.
Partners magazine is still in production, in hard copy and online formats, as ACIAR celebrates 40 years.
Initial reactions to ACIAR’s new magazine have been very encouraging. Personal copies were sent to all Australian Federal Members of Parliament, and also state government ministers concerned with agriculture. We have been gratified to receive many very complimentary letters from them. The magazine … aims to summarise research results coming out of ACIAR projects in greater depth than is possible in the ACIAR Newsletter, and to put the Centre’s research thrusts into a broader perspective.
ACIAR Newsletter No. 14, 1988
ACIAR stepped into the world of social media in 2009, opening a Twitter account to connect with stakeholders.
From 2011, ACIAR expanded its social media platforms to include Flickr, YouTube, LinkedIn and SlideShare. The first social media strategy and guidelines were launched in November 2011, as well as monitoring and evaluation systems to determine the effectiveness of the platforms in augmenting the established traditional channels of communication.
New platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, have been adopted as they emerge to enhance reach and influence in the ever-expanding scene of social and online media.
The social media strategy was renewed in 2021, to reflect and embrace changing audience behaviour and new technologies, to increase engagement, and to maintain effective monitoring methods.
ACIAR launched its first website in 1997. Embarking on the ‘world wide web’ may have seemed like a brave new world in 1997 but by 2003 the role and potential of a website in government business was recognised.
The website underwent significant redevelopment between 2018 and 2021 in terms of architecture, content and technologies to improve user experience and engagement.
The ACIAR website continues to be a hub to communicate with stakeholders and the general public, providing news, project information, publications, and a range of operational documents, such as mandatory public reporting and employment opportunities.
New functionalities are added to the website, as technology develops. This includes more dynamic page structures, hosting of videos and podcasts, and state-of-the-art search facilities. Bringing more readers to the website is managed through search engine optimisation and accessibility is guided by the international standards, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
ACIAR’s remodelled and extended website is now open for business. Its creation marks a change in emphasis on the way in which information is made available to the Centre’s clients and the public. ‘We decided to make the website the hub of our operational and administrative activities,’ said Director Peter Core. ‘This decision is in line with recent moves within the Australian Public Service, but it is also a recognition that it is a smart way to inform our stakeholders and for them to readily obtain information from us.’
ACIAR Newsletter No. 43, 2003
Communicating in the 2020s
Communicating the results of ACIAR work is still as important as it was when it was mandated in 1982. The commitment to extending research findings is a pillar of delivery on our mission, as articulated in the ACIAR 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027.
The original communication approach of a stakeholder magazine and a suite of corporate and scientific publications remains in place, however the function of communications at ACIAR has broadened to an outreach program and embraces a wide range of formats using new technologies and undertakes targeted activity to engage with specific stakeholder groups.
Ms Eleanor Dean, General Manager, Outreach and Capacity Building, described the features of the modern ACIAR Outreach Program.
‘As we celebrate 40 years of achievement and learning, we use the latest digital technologies to tell the stories of ACIAR and we have many platforms and forums in which to engage with stakeholders.
‘Establishing a presence on digital platforms has given ACIAR massive reach into a wide range of audiences, with more than 100,000 engagements each month through social media and our website. The Outreach Program has a multi-skilled team that can create compelling content through photography, videography and short and long format stories. We have many ways to tell the same story to different audiences.
‘We also look for opportunities to work with other media organisations to create mass media content to profile the work of ACIAR. We have worked with Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, to take impressive projects, such as research on coral reef restoration and the contribution of ACIAR-supported research to recovery after the Boxing Day tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, to a national audience through the Landline program. We worked with the SBS Food Network to create the Good cooks television series where high-profile Australian chefs travelled to our partner countries, visiting communities where ACIAR-funded research has improved food production systems. The chefs then cooked with the locals, linking the food crops to traditional dishes.
‘Organising and supporting an ACIAR presence at leading global and national events is a way to provide targeted engagement with our stakeholders. This facet of outreach can be as simple as providing sponsorship, speakers and a display at a scientific conference, such as the annual Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Conference, through to providing committee personnel, sponsoring attendees and organising international conferences, like the inaugural Seeds of Change: Gender Equality Through Agricultural Research for Development, which was convened by ACIAR and hosted by the University of Canberra in February 2019, with 280 delegates from 45 countries.
‘Another development of the ACIAR Outreach Program, that truly extends our reach and impact, has been the establishment of the In-Country Communication Officer Network. The network is made up of communication specialists who are placed strategically throughout our region, within the Country Network. Referred to as ICCONs, these communicators are our eyes and ears on the ground in our partner countries. In 2022, ACIAR had communicators in seven of our 11 Country Offices.’