Tag Archives: communications

Unknown Researchers

Growing numbers of professors across the United States now use social media to highlight their research, share their ideas, expand their connections and attract new funding.

Not so in this corner of Eastern Europe. Facebook is widespread in Moldova but Twitter is not. Instagram is still catching on. Many Moldovans prefer Russian-language social networks such as Odnoklassniki or Vkontakte. And, of course, faculty members who hope to catch the attention of English-speaking journalists may have difficulty communicating with them.


The deeper challenge, though, as I discovered when leading a workshop at Moldova State University on Friday, is that researchers in this post-Soviet state have no training or infrastructure to help them explain their work to the public, whether on social media, through journalists or otherwise. IMG_3407Moldova State University, the country’s flagship academic institution, doesn’t even have a news office, much less a system for promoting faculty research.

As someone who worked with researchers for several decades in the United States before coming to Moldova two years ago to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was humbled by the immense challenges academics face here. The ones I met are working on renewable energy options, decision-making models, biomedical systems and more, but they are essentially on their own in sharing their work with their fellow Moldovans, much less the outside world. 

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By contrast, the news office I led previously at Duke University (above) now has three research communicators as well as videographers, photographers, social media experts and others available to assist with stories. Additional research communicators focus on medicine, engineering, environment and other topics at Duke’s various schools. The same is true at other top U.S. research universities, as well as at other campuses, national labs, corporations and others involved in research. The National Association of Science Writers has nearly 2,000 members, with active regional groups, and there are U.S. groups for professional communicators in medicine, health care, environment, education and other fields.

Here in Moldova, there’s close to nothing.

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The main reason, of course, is money, or rather the lack of it. Prior to the workshop, I reached out to Florentin Paladi, a physicist and impressive guy (in the blue shirt in the photo above) who oversees research at the university and, earlier in his career, spent time at the University of Michigan and institutions in London, Italy and Japan. He described a budget so tight that most professors earn less than a U.S. teenager working at McDonald’s, with no resources left for news offices and other functions we take for granted back home.

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That’s why I encouraged the professors to use social media, since they can do it themselves for free. I showed them how researchers do this in the West, drawing on some excellent slides shared by my former Duke colleague, Karl Bates. I also showed a few budding social media examples from this part of the world, a few of which I’ve included here. I needed to move quickly, though, since I had to leave time for everyone to practice explaining their work simply to each other and, later, to the group. Just like back home, this led to laughter and applause as these highly trained experts struggled to speak without jargon, whether in Romanian or English. (The workshop was supposed to be in English but I ended up teaching much of it in Romanian.)


A few weeks earlier, at the invitation of Vladimir Snurenco, I taught workshops at the American Language Center (above), on news writing and opinion writing. The students at these sessions were not academics but I encountered similar cultural differences. For instance, many media outlets here are controlled by oligarchs or foreign governments and even routine local news stories may be colored with political commentary. “Pay to play” is common. There are few op-ed pages.

I’ll be returning home in a few weeks and am already bracing myself for the first time I hear someone complain we don’t do enough in the United States and other developed countries to highlight research, which is often supported with public funds and is essential to our collective health, security and prosperity. I agree with them but, even so, I now know some experts who could give them a second opinion.

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Balancing the Goals

Peace Corps has three goals but devotes most of its attention to one of them, even though volunteers generally end up saying their biggest impact came from the other two, which focus on communications and enhancing international friendship.

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 1.27.05 PMAs someone who thinks a lot about communications and cares about the Peace Corps deeply, first serving as a volunteer four decades ago and now again, I’ve tried to understand the logic of this. I still don’t get it. Americans and people in other countries need more than ever to understand each other. I think the Peace Corps, which just celebrated its 57th birthday, could be more impactful by fully embracing its communications role and bringing its portfolio into alignment with its mandate.

I have spent my career as a writer, editor and communications strategist. I know many people view our field as “getting the word out” or, less charitably, as cheap publicity.Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 1.26.24 PM At its best, though, communications has the deeper purpose of advancing organizational goals. I worked in the philanthropy world for many years and saw that even as some foundations focused on their slick annual reports and websites, others embraced communication as a strategic tool. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, spent a lot of money on advertising and other communications activities to fight Big Tobacco and raise public awareness about the dangers of smoking. Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 1.24.31 PMIt played an important role in turning the tide on that issue. Other foundations helped change attitudes towards the LGBTQ community and on other issues.

When we turn to the attitudes American have about people in developing countries, Peace Corps is uniquely situated to provide facts, stories and perspective. Indeed, that is its mission.

President John F. Kennedy established three goals for Peace Corps, which still guide the organization. Goal One is to build the local capacity of people in interested countries and help meet their need for trained men and women. Goal Two is to promote a better understanding of Americans among people in other countries. Goal Three is to increase America’s awareness and knowledge of other cultures and global issues.

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A national survey of more than 11,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) several years ago found that most felt their biggest long-term impact was with the second two goals — changing how Americans and others view each other.

Yet even though two-thirds of our goals deal with communications, and more than a half-century of experience suggests this is where we can be most successful, Peace Corps focuses on Goal One. Obviously, this is our primary job and deserves most of our time and resources, but the other two goals need attention, too.

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During my own training, our “community and organizational development” (COD) group spent countless hours learning about community needs assessment, community mapping, community surveys, etc. Champa’s English education group studied teaching techniques and the like. Our overall group met together many times but never had a serious discussion about how we could pursue Goal Two and Goal Three more effectively. Just this past Friday, my volunteer group was invited to participate in a detailed review of COD. Goals Two and Three were never addressed until I asked about them at the end.

This past summer, Peace Corps Moldova added a training session for incoming volunteers on using blogs and social media tools, training that paid off with increased volunteer activity in these areas. But it was one session and was not followed up with more training or programmatic activity.

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A management rule is that the amount of time people and organizations spend on a topic reflects its importance to them. The small amount of time Peace Corps devotes to communications as a strategic activity speaks for itself.

IMG_6025I am not picking on Peace Corps Moldova, which has expanded its communications activities and supported innovations by its chief communications staffer, who I’ve been assisting. Some volunteers here have organized wonderful classes and cross-cultural events, such as during the recent “Peace Corps Week” or to celebrate American holidays.

Rather, I think this is a challenge for Peace Corps generally. The agency has taken some positive steps in recent years to promote PCV communications, such as a video contest that just completed its annual competition (see the winner here) and previous blogging campaigns. It has beefed up its online and social media activities and provided communications training for local staff around the world.  It created a “Third Goal” office, which maintains a media library and assists outreach activities such as the talks Champa and I gave when we visited home last summer. Many returned volunteers also share their experiences and perspective through RPCV groups and in other ways.

Yet all of this remains at the margins of what I’ve seen Peace Corps emphasizing while I’ve been a volunteer. To be sure, most volunteers advance Goal Two through their daily activities, showing by example the best of American values. But so much more could be accomplished if Peace Corps simultaneously made communications a real priority in its recruiting, training, program development and assessment. What other great things would volunteers be doing now if Peace Corps had challenged them to promote cross-cultural understanding with the same passion it promotes education for girls or community health care?

I don’t expect every volunteer to participate or be as active as I am with this blog, but I do think many more of them around the world would get involved if Peace Corps made clear this is a central part of our mission, not a “would be nice” if they have extra time.

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I’ve spent the large majority of my own time in Moldova on Goal One and am proud of what my partners and I have accomplished together. Many of my fellow PCVs here do amazing things at their job sites and in their communities, as do PCVs in more than 60 other countries. We are all trying to make a difference. But we’re also charged with teaching our host communities about America and our families and friends back home about distant places they may regard as mysterious or dangerous.

The Peace Corps changed my life for the better. I think it’s an amazing organization — one that can become even greater by finding a better balance among its three goals while remaining nonpolitical and committed to its development agenda.

President Kennedy was right when he defined our multiple missions. He’s still right today.

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Peace Corps Stories

Many of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova have inspiring stories to share.

Katrina Broughman and Bartosz Gawarecki, for instance, guided young people to organize recycling projects and reduce trash, an effort that has begun spreading nationwide.

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Anne Reid, a former dancer and choreographer from Harlem, launched an African dance class at her local library, leading to other worthwhile projects in her community.

Chrystal Wilson joined with other volunteers to bring young people and others together to talk about sexual assault and harassment, calling attention to the problem of “blaming the victim” when women suffer abuse.

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Their stories and others have appeared recently on Peace Corps Stories, which highlights the experiences of volunteers worldwide, from an innovative malaria project in Rwanda to an older American who followed in her daughter’s footsteps and became a volunteer herself as an English teacher in Indonesia. I’ve been helping some of my colleagues here to put their stories into words.

For many years, the Peace Corps communications office in Wahington took the lead in reviewing and editing all of these articles, which volunteers submit from more than 60 countries. Volunteers in Moldova have been among the contributors. “HQ” recently arranged for individual country programs to edit and post articles on their own, to appear on their sections of the site — “Moldova Stories,” “Nepal Stories” and so forth. HQ still edits some articles directly but now also oversees the “local articles” and picks some of the best to feature internationally.

Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 3.09.49 PMMy country director asked me earlier this year whether I might want to assist with this editing and other communications initiatives for Peace Corps Moldova, as a secondary project to complement my primary job. I’ve been happy to help, working most closely with Liuba Chitaev on the staff, pictured here.

img_2593Together we helped launch a new Peace Corps Moldova Instagram site and Super Moldovans on Facebook. Earlier this month, Liuba and I gave the first-ever presentation on communications for the newest group of trainees.

Volunteers here are doing other kinds of outreach as well, from blogs and videos to projects such as Jessica Randall describing in 100 Instagram posts and on Peace Corps Stories what she likes about Moldova. Clary Estes has been documenting the stories of Moldovans deported during the Stalinist era. Mark Gilchrist has produced a series of newsletters in English, Romanian and Russian.

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Our new projects complement these and other communications efforts, advancing the Peace Corps goals of sharing our American culture with others and expanding understanding among Americans about life in other parts of the world.

I’ve written some “Peace Corps Stories” myself but, just like back home, I enjoy editing as much as writing, especially when I’m working with someone who has a great story but just needs a little nudge, tweak or feedback. There are many more volunteers here with great stories of their own. I hope we’re just getting started.