13 minute read

The age of the expert

In the first episode of season two of the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast, International BizEd Guru Matt Symonds, BlueSky Education’s Stephanie Mullins, Kerry Ruffle and Olivia Nieberg discuss how the pandemic has heralded the age of the expert, along with Jonathan L. Simon, Director of Marketing and Communications at The Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.


Here’s what they had to say

Matt: I think opinions about experts come and go – but they remain a constant as we try to make sense of the world, whether that’s societal challenges that we face, challenges for the economy, climate change, etc. Four or five years ago, I think there were a lot of politicians that wanted to push those expert voices to one side, probably because it doesn't didn't suit the political narrative that they were pursuing, but the last four years – and certainly the last eight months with a pandemic – I think we’ve seen the reversal of that. The public is now clamouring to have expert voices in a sense of individuals that they can trust because what they're sharing is based on science.

How often have we heard this expression? Listen to the science. I think business schools are, therefore, an incredible source of expertise. And this is what journalists love. They want to include voices of authority, and reason that is backed up by research and that expert knowledge.

New programmes at a business school may come and go, but I think expertise is the cornerstone of interaction with the media, and it can reach across boundaries. As we've discussed with journalists from the Wall Street Journal, what a business school observes about gender balance in the C-suite in Norway, has implications for the US or companies around the world. So the age of the expert, I think will endure.

Kerry: Yeah, Matt, I think you're absolutely right on that. Like you say, there's been plenty of talk in the past; Have we heard enough of experts? Are we exhausted of hearing all these differing voices? But actually, I think as information from official sources – whether that's politics or companies – becomes less and less clear, there is always going to be that need for an informative third voice.

I think we're also in an age now where people appreciate clarity. Companies are being asked to be more upfront about their practices, what they do, who they are, how they perform. And we certainly appreciate truth from politicians, though we don't always get it, and I think the next generation are a lot more cynical. They're a lot more critical of what they hear, they don't take everything at face value. They want to hear from a third party, a different source, to clarify the information to make sense of it, and then form their own opinions. And business schools have so many different sets of expertise under their roofs, whether it's climate change, whether it's on the economy, whether it's finance, whether it's looking into AI or the future of tech, so they really are the best placed institutions to be able to provide this source of information to the world.

Steph: So true. And we're now coming to that word that everyone has grown tired of… unprecedented. We're living in this world that really is unprecedented! And we want to hear from experts now. We want to understand what's going on in all those areas that you've outlined. And we've seen schools across the globe really take advantage of this and understand that their experts really do hold the answers.

Kerry: So in this edition of the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast, we're going to be addressing the age of the expert, and how business schools can position their experts to best effect in the media. Steph, who are we going to be hearing from today?

Steph: First up is our chat with Jonathan Simon. He's from the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

Now, us in communications have seen just how much academic comment has been sought by journalists and editors during the pandemic. Jonathan, have you seen this at your institution?

Jonathan: Yeah, I think there's a rise of people, journalists and media, trying to cover the story and there's many different angles. And so, naturally, experts that work in universities are being sought after. I think this is just an extension of what we're seeing around the world where there's this sense, especially in North America, of fake news and fake media. And I think that media outlets, in order to continue to try to battle that and gain credibility, turn to experts in universities and colleges around the world who are seen as experts. So the media is trying to lean on the experts of universities to lend some credibility to their news stories and this is being seen with COVID as well.

Steph: Definitely, I recently read a piece of research that analysed who editors and readers trusted most in terms of interviewees – and academics were right at the top – so obviously they hold such weight in the media and with readers and the public, that they're more important than maybe ever.

What sort of topics have you seen your academics being asked to speak about?

Jonathan: I work at a business school so some of the research and expertise that we have in-house that I've seen journalists reach out to a lot around working from home, finding the right work at home balance, is a big one. We have thriving labs, community of HR professionals and others, that have been studying workaholics and things before the pandemic. There's been many positives about being stuck at home with COVID – more time with family – but I think a lot of people struggle with when to turn off the computer, when to turn off the phone, and how to find a balance when work is always on now, and you're always accessible. I think that's one big one.

On the finance side, obviously, with how the markets are reacting, it's a very strange time. Many people are wondering how the markets are reacting to news around COVID around the world, whereas digital players are shooting through the roof because everybody has to go digital. So there's the finance aspect of it that journalists are looking at and then there's the marketing side.

Companies that started to go into mobile, and digital, are now forced to do it. I read some stats that said that COVID has forced us to be five years ahead of where we need to be on e-commerce. These are great stories for journalists to write about, but they need the academic backing, to prove their points. And luckily, a lot of people and institutions, including mine, have been studying these trends for many, many, many years. And so they are truly experts and now it's their time to shine.

Steph: I totally agree. It's great to see how many business schools have been able to put forward these fantastic academics, and offer really worthy, useful comments and tips for people who are trying to navigate a whole new world of working. It's had such an impact on working lives that academics are so valuable right now for their insights and how they can help.

Jonathan: Yeah, it's also a weird time though. Even though universities are being sought after for these academics that are so important, we are now faced with what's going to happen with enrolments and what's going to happen with recruitment.

Normally in down cycles in economy, education rises to the top because people are going back to school to do their MBAs and other programmes. And now, it's very interesting to see who will show up, who can show up, who's decided that online learning is not for them, because they were paying for the prestigious school and realising now that it all seems the same online, whether you go to Harvard or the Telfer School of Management, it looks the same. So it's an interesting time for the academics to have two roles, they focus on research and being experts, but then they also teach. And so we're going to find out in a few short months, what that's going look like, and it's very, very interesting.

Steph: It's the same situation for so many business schools. They're in this situation where they're not quite sure yet what the impact of the pandemic is really going to be in terms of student numbers. But certainly, I imagine, that helping your faculty and your experts get into the media really helps the business school’s brand?

Jonathan: Yeah, I mean business schools before the pandemic were highly competitive. Now, it's even more the case and most business schools in most institutions are very popular with students wanting to take those types of courses versus maybe some other types.

So the competition just got more fierce and in order for your brand to stand out, make sure that you know what is different about you. The top business schools, the ones that are forward thinking, are continuing forward with their plans. They're not pausing. Because they know that they'll be much further behind the other schools if they don't just continue on with their long-term vision. We know the pandemic will end one day. We know that this will happen, we don't know when, and those schools that decide to wait until it's over to start, will probably be further behind the schools that keep pushing forward with their brand and what they're about.

At the same time, if the schools can pivot, and offer things that are related to digital and the way the business world is moving in e-commerce, they're going to be even farther ahead than some of the slower schools that aren’t willing to adopt these new types of programmes that students are demanding.

Steph: Definitely. And it's funny that you say that because I was speaking to a marketing professor – we're quite lucky that we're in the situation where we can talk to academics about these things – he was saying that now is the worst time to cut a budget, especially when you're looking at marketing and all these initiatives, because you want to make sure you're ahead and you're not pulling back when really you should be continuing onward.

Jonathan: Yeah. And that's it.

Kerry: Jonathan makes the most pertinent comment that it's been academics’ time to shine.

Steph, we've seen this across the team, haven't we?

Steph: Yes. Olivia Nieberg, one of our fantastic PR consultants here at BlueSky Education has been speaking to us about some of the work she's been doing with academics at this time.

Thank you for joining us today. We're speaking about the age of the expert. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work you've been doing with business schools and academics all over the world in this respect?

Olivia: Sure. As you said, the pandemic has really increased the need for expert opinion. We've both seen how much the media, as well as the public, really want insights from these experts. I think that is because it's such an unprecedented situation that we face and none of us could have ever predicted that this would happen. I think people really just want experts, in the economy, in travel, in supply chain, all of these areas, just to kind of make sense of what's going on. I think people are looking to cure that confusion.

We've had a lot of different scenarios where we've managed to secure experts from our clients in the media, because from a business school perspective, they have so many great faculty that can share expert opinion. It's kind of a win-win situation that they get some excellent media coverage but also the public are really wanting their opinion to give them reassurance on what's happened, what is actually going on at the moment.

Steph: Definitely, experts are really in demand at the moment because, like you say, it's such an unprecedented situation and a very strange world. We're all learning how to deal with it and academics have insights that people really want listen to.

I think you have a couple of examples that you wanted to talk about today?

Olivia: Yeah, definitely. As I said, experts have been giving their opinions on not only what is currently going on, but our professors from the business schools we work with have also been able to offer predictions and how they think everything is going to pan out.

A great example of this is a professor that we have from NEOMA called Nicolas Befort. He gave three scenarios for what he thinks is going to happen with supply chains, the economy, tourism and sustainability. He gave his perspective on what he thinks the future is going to look like in the next few months within a digital publication called Open Access Government, which is very well read not only by people within those sectors, but by the general public as well. So that not only shone NEOMA Business School in a brilliant light, but it also gave a lot of reassurance to the public as well, who were interested to see how things were going turn out within these sectors.

Steph: Definitely, totally agree. It's nice to see business schools and their faculty really helping people and providing advice in a way we have seen in the past but I don't think to such an extent.

Olivia: I mean, the last few months, although it's been so difficult, I think there's been a real surge in productivity amongst experts, and there's been so much new research that has come out that we've really seen a need for it in the media. And we've managed to secure, as you said, a lot of media opportunities.

Another great example of some media that we managed to secure was in Raconteur, which also gets published in Sunday Times, and that was with the professor from ESCP Business School, Professor Terrence Tse. He gave his opinion on how artificial intelligence can be used within businesses, to help them overcome the struggles throughout the pandemic. He gave his technological perspective because, at the moment, we've become even more reliant on technology since this pandemic started. Although people were using technology to a huge extent anyway, since the pandemic started, we’ve needed it more than ever. We've needed it to work, we've needed it to communicate, we've needed it to educate ourselves on online learning. To have an expert that can talk about technology so well, in such a great publication like the Sunday Times, I think that was brilliant for not only ESCP but for businesses and people to get his insights on a topic that is definitely developing at the moment.

Steph: It's a win-win because the public really value his insights and, like you say, it's more important than perhaps ever to understand technology and how it can support us at the moment. But also it's such a great boost to the brand for him himself and his personal profile. It's really great to see.

You help a number of academics with this sort of exposure, you've recently worked with a Cambridge professor?

Olivia: Yep, similar to the last, it leads into people wanting to learn more about the technology that we're using. We had a great article in Forbes for one of our professors at Cambridge Judge Business School, which is obviously world-renowned and an excellent business school. This article in Forbes really goes into detail about how, not only from a professional perspective but from a personal perspective, how people can get to grips with using Zoom. I think we've become used to it but for a lot of people, it can be quite awkward. It can be quite stilted. And especially for managers having to manage remote teams, I think you always have people that are more confident than others. And managers need to learn how to deal with the people that find video conferencing a bit more tricky than other people. So for Mark de Rond, the professor from Cambridge, to give his tips and advice on a huge platform like Forbes on how to deal with sometimes tricky conversations you might have to have over Zoom, or how to make some people feel comfortable when they join their team call in the morning, I think a lot of people would have really benefited from hearing his advice. I definitely took some took some of them myself.

Steph: So useful for such a wide audience! The amount of people who have used Zoom for the first time in the past few months, it's just incredible, and anything that we can learn to be better at these things is so valuable.

You've really enjoy doing this sort of work, don't you?

Olivia: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it's been a very difficult period and I don't think it's over yet, but from what we've seen over the last month, the research that has come out, the work that is going on into trying to make sense of this weird world that we live in at the moment, I think that a lot of positives have come out of it as well as negative.

Steph: I agree, and it's a good way to look at it moving forward, seeking advice and help and being positive. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us.

Kerry: It was great to hear from Liv about all the great work she's been doing with faculty, whether it's NEOMA or ESCP, and sharing those elements of faculty expertise in some really prestigious and well-read media. But of course, you know, every business school has huge amount of faculty, and there's a huge amount of business schools in the world, so competition to get your academic out into the world to get them heard is extremely fierce. And particularly when you consider that journalists are under far more pressure today than they've ever been before. Their inboxes are flooded with emails of offers from people who can offer a spokesperson. So with the best will in the world, it's not always enough for your professor to be an expert in finance or an expert in climate change. So what else can we offer to ensure that our school faculty member can get in front of that journalist and make an impact?

Steph: I think the key is to get the right journalist at the right time, and we maintain those relationships with journalists and editors all over the world to make sure we're really answering their needs, and answering what the public wants to hear. Ultimately, we're providing the answers and the expertise that is so valuable right now. And you're right, Kerry, we have heard from in-house comms teams about oversaturation. Journalists are just having too much to deal with. I mean, Jonathan Moules (reporter at the Financial Times) went on sabbatical for a month and instead of going through his hundreds of emails when he came back, he rang Peter at BlueSky to find out what's been going on, who can he speak to? And get experts that way. Because really, they get so many emails, it's about breaking through that noise effectively.

Kerry: Yeah, Steph, I think you're right. I think it's about understanding it’s about sending that quick email that answers very, very briefly, who you can put to them for comments, and exactly what that person can offer. It's not enough to list their job title, but actually share a quick insight into their perspectives, their ideas, their expertise, their background, to give a journalist a flavour of what they can expect to gain if they spoke to that person, how can they add to the article they're putting together? And then to make the rest of it really clear, when are they available? How can you reach them? What's their availability? All those things to make it as easy a job as possible.

Matt: That brings together a couple of interesting aspects of all of this work and the link between faculty and the media. As you said earlier, Kerry, journalists are under tremendous pressure. They're trying to meet deadlines, and include multiple voices perhaps in their articles for breath. And yet the time that that takes, there's a relationship of trust that can be formed, where they also want to know that the individual that they're speaking to is not just an expert in the subject, but they can provide perhaps pithy, succinct, to the point commentary, that will actually work in the body of an article.

Working with the team at BlueSky is a great example, they're able to approach you and say, I need somebody to comment on this and how you then play a very proactive role to identify not just that level of expertise, but individuals that they can then speak to, to capture that soundbite or something that's really on message.

Kerry: Absolutely right. It has to be an academic who knows how to speak in real terms, to take away the language that's put into research papers and the jargon and have somebody that can speak with a very clear voice about what is happening in a particular industry at the moment, and what their expertise can provide, so that can be easily digested, easily understood and put into practice by those that are listening to it on a podcast or reading about it in a magazine.

I think that the faculty we work with have an understanding that their position makes them an expert. When they're giving predictions, they just have to have a well-informed opinion. They don't have to have stats and data and evidence to back up everything they say. The fact that they've researched topic for 30 years, or they've worked in industry for 10 years, gives them enough authority to be able to make a prediction or to suggest a scenario that may happen without having to refer to six or seven different research papers to back up their point. The academic world and the world of media are very different.

Steph: This has been a fantastic first episode for season two of the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast. We've talked all about the age of the expert and we're going to be looking at some more topics in the next episode and onwards for this season. We'll be looking at raising a Dean's profile, we'll be talking to high profile Deans about what the future of business education might look like, so keep listening to our other episodes.

The BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast

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