I'm part of a trade group that's looking to hire a professor to write a whitepaper on our industry. We plan to release and promote the study to help people understand our business. What's the best way to do that? Find a professor in our niche and reach out to them directly? Or do you go through the department chair or some other means? Are professors generally receptive to this sort of for-profit work? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Yes, some professors are available for consultancy work. Find one or two in your specialty, and approach them: some universities have directories of experts listed by subject, to help you identify suitable researchers. You'll find they're typically lower-priced than the equivalent grade of management consultant, as well as doing better work.
Though you're paying the piper, you won't be calling the tune (with the exception of a handful of rogues).
Which means that they'll publish what they find. It is highly likely that there will be some of it you don't like, which will mean you won't want to publicise the final report. They will write one or more papers based on what they've found, and if the university's legal team has done its job properly, you'll have no say in the content of those papers, nor how the university promotes them, so it will be out of your control.
If you want to learn something about your industry from an academic angle, you will get your money's worth, subject to real data being available. Academics are sometimes able to get access to information that others could not, precisely because of the pressures on them to remain independent and treat data impartially. However, the fact that you're funding them may impair their access.
Do bear in mind that an academic will typically put a lot of work into describing the uncertainties: so on first skim, the impression you'll get from the report is that it mostly says "we don't know this, and we can't know that; there are indications of those. More research is required". The report may take some digesting, as a lot of academics are very experienced at writing, but surprisingly few write lucidly and accessibly.
If you're looking for promotional material, this really is the wrong tack.
There are several issues at work here.
The biggest issue here is credibility. The fact that you want to hire someone to write a study of the industry creates a conflict of interest: since you are paying the bills for such a paper, then presumably there won't be anything significant which could be construed as either negative or critical of your industry.
Compounding the matter is that you then want to publicize the study you have paid for, which makes the credibility issue that much more serious for the faculty member in question.
Any professor whose opinion on this might actually mean something would likely not want to touch such a project with a ten-foot pole, because this doesn't pass the "smell test."
Instead of hiring a person for a single white-paper, you could submit a call for project proposals, if your funding permits. Here is an example of Facebook doing this.
If you want to make a general project proposal call or one that is topic-specific, then the key way to "get it out there" would be via mailing-lists. You can also directly contact research facilitators, whose job it is to help staff write, submit, and manage research proposals. There are research facilitators at many universities, institutes, and departments.
The advantage is that projects may be proposed on topics you didn't think were important to your industry and you'd get more research.
Others have highlighted the conflict-of-interest angle in asking for a whitepaper. That conflict-of-interest can also exist with corporate or industry-funded projects. But in both cases that isn't necessarily the case. The project I am currently on is funded by a company, but we have academic independence.
Bear with me for a minute, there is a logic to the exposition I am about to make.
I'm part of a trade group that's looking to hire a professor to write a whitepaper on our industry.
In my experience of this, it would imply heavy competition within your industry, but with no value in branding. For example, there is a great value to promoting the beef industry, but no value in promoting the beef of the Bar-X Ranch, except maybe locally as a source of fresh, locally grown beef.
We plan to release and promote the study to help people understand our business.
My experience of this is that the industry, maybe for the first time, is having public relations problems and people are so disconnected from the industry that the perceptions of the industry may not align with the facts. Hence, hiring a professor may allow some credibility to the idea that people are misunderstanding the reality that is being lived.
What's the best way to do that?
Having a professor explain it through a whitepaper that is picked up by the press implies the professor would be asked to be interviewed on television. There are two problems with this tactic. The first is that the tobacco industry tried this and America has been a bit jaded ever since. If the professor had spontaneously produced research, not funded by the industry, and if it were newsworthy, you would have free PR. Professors are valued as experts because they do not get paid to produce research or disclose the conflicts of interest in their writing so that the reader can discount it.
It is possible, however, that someone is already producing your PR work right now and you just do not know about it.
If your industry is large enough, there is almost certainly at least one university that teaches it as a class. I teach industry specific courses from time to time. Others do too. In fact, just about everyone does.
You need to search for someone who already teaches what you need explained. They fit the criteria of "doing it for free." They may not be saying what you want said, but they are talking about you. You can search for courses at universities by restricting your searches to .edu and making sure you include the word "syllabus." Then you can see what is being taught and what books and articles they are using.
From that list, and it is probably a small list, you can look to see what they are talking about. Then, instead of funding a whitepaper, fund an online class and get it put on YouTube. You could then ask the instructor you chose to be sure to cover some topics because you feel that all sides are not being explained. If they are a legitimate academic, they will bring out all sides.
A sequence of videos is also nice because they will come up in searches by those who are actually interested. Videos are nice because you can ignore the parts of the topic you don't want to know about, whereas you have to read the entire white paper.
Once you have narrowed down the list of professors who cover your field explicitly, you could then reach out to them. For some professors, they are so underwater that you could offer any amount of money and they couldn't take it. For others, the opportunity to fund something they are going to do without you will give them a boost in income, maybe give the institution some extra exposure, and create the opportunity for future work.
If you are in a very narrow field, such a the makers of cheddar cheese, the people teaching it who are any good would be teaching it as part of a larger class on either dairy production or agricultural products, or they are not so good and will just teach you how to make cheese as in an extension class. This isn't to say they are bad at their job, but they do not need to understand the industry to teach a hobbyist how to make cheddar.
If you are in a narrow field, then look at who is publishing research on your field in the academic papers. Any academic librarian could help you figure out what papers are out there and who is producing them. It will take a lot of papers to start figuring out who the luminary or luminaries in the field are, but I can almost guarantee you that they exist.
A whitepaper is probably the wrong way to go. Also, if your industry has opponents then the opponent can now see a lecture on the topic and have someone to contact to see why they are teaching such wrongheaded ideas, even if those wrongheaded ideas are factually true.
People can see through whitepapers done as cheerleading for an industry, but if it is a legitimate lecture on the topic, then it should work. The bigger issue on your side is making sure everyone has "clean hands," or it will not work.
There are caveats.
Check the level of industrial readiness. Academia is often working on level which does not pay off yet or at all, and it's legitimate for them, while you are working on a level which has to pay off. You have to find the Golden middle.
Depending on his/her contract, a professor might not be allowed to do some extra job legally above his/her 40 hours per week or so. You should find one that offers consultancy as a business outside of his/her regular hours.
When professors are not working for their institutions but for you, they are not acting as professors in their duty. Therefore, in the strict sense of the word, they should not sign the paper as "Prof. Smith" or put the institution's name there; the best they can do is to sign off as "Dr. Smith", "Mr./Ms. Smith", "Jack/Jane Smith" in the paper's title page without the institution's name. The paper might not get the weight you wanted.
If you are o.k. with that, find the person and hire him/her. As others said, some professors even offer consultancy services in their free time.
If not, you should establish an academic-industrial cooperation which would allow the professor to do his/her proper academic job that would also correspond with your interests. The terms of such a collaboration are highly country-dependent; you should really check the country's specifics.
Now how to find such a chap? As a start, go through the websites of several nearby institutions and write a few e-mails asking directly what you want. Then take it from there.