Q+A from Water Quality Webinar: ​Using the Right Tools to Develop Effective Messages

Last month, I did a webinar with the National Water Quality Monitoring Council on how to develop effective messages in science communication, with my last post on this topic written as a companion piece. Of course, I was talking to water quality folks, so I emphasized that message development is all about “distillation,” not oversimplification.

The presentation is available on Youtube and you can download the slides here. We had a number of questions we couldn’t get to before the webinar ended, so I’ve answered them below.

Big thanks to Candice Hopkins, the NWQMC’s executive secretary and a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey for pulling it together. And hat tip to my old colleague Melissa Varga, who runs the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science Network, for connecting us.

As I told my mom, this was a really special opportunity. Her father – that is to say my grandfather – was also a hydrologist and spent his entire career with the USGS, so it’s an institution that’s close to my my heart as well as my head.

Please see my answers to the questions below.

We’ve talked about things to do – any tips on what not to do?

Story Collider’s Liz Neely put it well when she said that scientists tend to underestimate how smart their audiences are while overestimating how much specific knowledge they have about a given topic. That fundamental ability to assess where an audience is at and where they can go with you is at the heart of a lot of mistakes scientists make when we talk about things like avoiding some types of jargon, establishing baselines, and accounting for cultural differences with audiences.

Would the message structure need to be adjusted if you want to highlight a benefit to a specific congressional district rather than trying to appeal to a funder on the broader public good?

Absolutely. Legislators are parochial and for good reason; they are serving the people of a specific district and we all have what social scientists would call a “proximity bias” for our own communities. Unfortunately, gerrymandered legislative districts don’t make a lot of geographic or scientific sense, so when we’re looking at data, it can be helpful to focus on things like metro areas, water basins or county-level information to put things in a useful geographic context for policymakers. At a minimum, state-based data is something that members of Congress and their staff are always eager to see and hear about.

In any case, it’s important to be able to communicate about these things to multiple audiences. So if you’re working with a message template that has a slot for talking about the potential benefits of a project, you’d have multiple versions of that message you could slot in and out depending on the audience.

Does the advice change when talking to skeptical electeds?

Yes. If you’re dealing with a policymaker who has some friction with an agency or who distrusts scientists who study a certain topic, it’s often the case that scientists are not the people they want to hear from. Instead, you might consider partnering with a stakeholder who the elected official does trust and who can explain to them in their shared language why a scientific topic or research project might be important. It’s that tension that often has to be resolved first before we can get to the scientific information and why it matters.

Is it ever appropriate to build credentials or consensus of science into the message?

I think it’s crucial, but we often don’t do a good job doing so. One’s credentials shouldn’t come across as elitist. Where scientists went to school or how many awards they’ve received is the kind of thing we’re used to seeing on a CV, but it makes more sense to put that in the context of why a scientist became curious about something in the first place. They didn’t go to Elite University X because it was elite; they went because they were fascinated by a subject that they wanted to study it with other like-minded scientists. They went where their curiosity led them, not their desire to come across as better than somebody else (usually, of course!).

I also don’t think people understand what consensus means in science. In everyday life, it sounds like the process we go through to pick a movie to watch with our family or friends. We kind of agree on the least objectionable thing for the most number of people. Scientific consensus is broader than that, so I think courtroom terms like “weight of the evidence” are better for conveying what scientists know about things like vaccine safety and well-established climate science.

It’s also important to emphasize what the consensus is as a baseline before delving into the uncertainties a scientist is exploring in their own work. Leaping ahead too quickly to the cutting edge stuff can sometimes make it sound like scientists know less than they actually do!

Finally, when attributing statements to elite institutions, such as universities, national academies or various agency or interagency panels, it’s also helpful to emphasize the public service nature of these institutions. As taxpayers, we are supporting these scientific enterprises to inform policymaking and personal and business decision-making. It’s not scientists issuing pronouncements from on high; it’s scientists producing useful information because we all asked them to.

Your presentation about effective messaging has been great. What do you recommend to get people to adopt your perspective and increase participation? 

Thank you! Bring me in for a workshop! Or hit up the other folks I mentioned, including Randy Olson.

Bigger picture, this gets to internal persuasion within the scientific community. Despite my own enthusiasm for science communication, I’m actually okay with the fact that a lot of scientists…just don’t like communicating. That’s okay. Not everybody has to be on board the ol’ #scicomm bandwagon, but I agree that more scientists communicating is a very good thing. And I’ve also written previously about how scientists and communications staffers can do more to work effectively together.

A couple thoughts:

First, there are scientific rockstars who are great communicators in every field. They should be bringing other people up with them, whether its peers or grad students. That can include referrals for speaking opportunities, sending media requests to a peer or co-developing communications projects with earlier career researchers. In the old media world, the spotlight was limited and there was a strong incentive to defend your place in it when you succeeded. In the new media world, bringing new people into the spotlight with you makes the spotlight bigger. So the rockstars and the people around them should recognize that dynamic and help build a community of increasingly better science communicators.

Second, I’d like to see managers devote some portion of project budgets to communications. It might only be 1 percent or 5 percent – and it should be more for pressing topics with significant public interest – but until an institution puts money on the table, communications will almost always be an afterthought. My thinking on that subject also extends to grant applications. Communications plans and goals should be part of the grading process. Certainly not a huge part of it – the work must remain the work and I’d rather see great science with bad communication supported over questionable science with great communication – but communications should count. (And this is an area where I’m very open to counter-arguments and alternative structures, too.)

Finally, I’d say the biggest thing individual scientists can do is share their successes and their lessons learned with peers. We all learn from each other and the more other scientists see their peers discussing how to approach communications, they more likely they’ll be to see it as part of their work, too.

P.S. – I think there is a big generational shift underway in science as digital natives take on more leadership roles. The discussions we have about science are increasingly public and accessible – hey, Twitter! – and that is baking science communication into a lot more of the activities scientists do. So many of the conversations that used to happen just among peers are now happening with peers, on blogs, in the media, and with the public and science-engaged nerds like me in real time every day. It’s exciting, a little overwhelming at times, and very different from what many scientific institutions are used to, so we’re all adapting in real time, too.

Continue reading

Developing Effective Messages in Science Communication

There are a lot of tips, methods, schools of thought and best practices for developing effective messages in science communication. I like them all. Which is to say I don’t stick to just one method when it’s time to figure out how to explain a result, concept, project or proposal. As a communications professional I tend to view them all as tools rather than rigid formulas.

Think of it as the “Bruce Lee” method of message development. Lee was well known for developing his own style of martial arts based on identifying what is effective for an individual and discarding what is not. In his mind, picking any one style was simply too rigid given all the different strengths and weaknesses an individual might have and all the different contexts in which they might use their skills.

And not that science communication is a fight, but I think those general principles apply well here. For instance, some scientists are stupendous public speakers; others are much more comfortable with email correspondence. Some scientists love extended metaphors; some loathe them. Some scientists love coming up with snappy soundbites; others like to keep things simple and clear.

A statue of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. Lee’s fighting style rejected adherence to any one martial art in favor of adapting other arts to one’s style and context. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A statue of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. Lee’s fighting style rejected adherence to any one martial art in favor of picking what works based on one’s style and context. He was also crazy-ripped. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So here’s what I’ve taken away from the many message development systems out there and how I integrate them into my work. Importantly, this is just what I think right now. As new systems and new methods of communications evolve, I’m ready to integrate them into my approach. That said, the narrative based template describe below from scientist-turned filmmaker Randy Olson is incredibly powerful; it’s become the go-to for me in my day-to-day work.

Build and refine

When I approach any of these tools, my instinct is to get the basic messages down first and get them right. As university science public information officer Matt Shipman describes it, a communications staffer or journalist often needs to get to the point where they can explain it to themselves and then – huzzah! – they can explain it to other people. Even when scientists are working on their own, they should strive to get their main messages on paper first, even if they sound boring, and build and refine from there.

When we approach developing messages, we often start by spitballing one-liners, zingers and metaphors. It can be a lot of fun, but doing so can actually hold us back from thinking creatively because we revert to shooting down everything that might be construed inaccurately. This is especially true in science communication – in fact, it should be expected, darn it! – but it happens in other fields, too.

If we start with main messages instead, we can make sure the creative, memorable messages we want to develop later stay in sync with the core concepts we want to convey.

Then we need to use a little bit of the scientific method and test our messages out in the real world. A soundbite that feels right on, but doesn’t get picked up by journalists isn’t a great soundbite at all. A metaphor that leads an audience in the wrong direction has to be dropped. And that’s a good thing. Once we find messages that do work, we can use them for a lifetime.

Message Boxes and Talking Points

A message box or set of talking points is useful for several reasons, but the chief ones are practical. A good message box makes a researcher focus on the top few points they can reasonably get across to an audience. My old boss Rich Hayes also likes calling them a message “compass” because they can keep a researcher on track. We all dance around a bit when giving lectures, conducting interviews or meeting with a policymaker. A message box reminds us to hit the notes we know to be important. It also helps us avoid getting distracted or going down into the weeds at the expense of conveying what we know to be most important.

Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor and the winner of the American Geophysical Union’s ambassador award for service to the Earth science community, keeps his main messages in two important spots: on a sign above his desk so he can reference it when doing interviews and in his wallet so he can reference them wherever he’s working.

Scott Mandia’s wallet-sized message box on climate science and policy in action! (Source: UCS webinar on science communication)

Scott Mandia’s wallet-sized message box on climate science and policy in action! (Source: UCS webinar on science communication)

A message box isn’t meant to include everything one says in an interview or talk. Instead, it’s meant to highlight what is necessary to convey in an interview or talk. In this sense, creating a message box is an act of prioritization, which can be tough for scientists. They always want more context, more data, and more precision. But communications is limited. So we have to choose.

Message boxes can include sub-points, they can be modular and they can be as skinny or as detailed as the user wants. Scientists fall on a spectrum for how much or how little detail they want in a message box. Generally speaking, the more experience one has doing communication, the less one tries to include a message box. The details are usually in our heads and we can retrieve them at will; it’s the big picture messages that seem well-understood to us, but which aren’t to public audiences, that we need to remember to consistently emphasize.

Message Boxes: Getting Down to Business

A basic message template would follow along these lines:

  • Here’s what we know.
  • Here’s what’s new.
  • Here’s why it matters.

Or put in science terms:

  • The basic science.
  • The new finding.
  • The implications for scientists or society.

This template is derived from the classic A Scientist’s Guide To Talking With The Media from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Here’s an example of such a basic message template that I prepared for a workshop with public health researchers a few years ago when I was working at UCS:

BasicScienceHIVAidsCarribean

The implication, like the discussion section of a scientific paper, is the most free-wheeling part of this template. If a researcher were talking to a foundation funder, their implication might be: “That’s why we need more research funding for field studies in tourism areas.” For a scientific audience it might be: “That’s why we need to identify new protocols for collecting data in tourism areas.”

Of course, those seem like pretty straightforward main messages. Will people remember them? Or could you structure a talk around them? After developing a main message template, it’s worth thinking through how you can convey each of the messages to make them more memorable.

Here’s a punched-up version of that same message template:

BasicScienceHIVAidsCarribeanPunchedUpThese messages are functionally the same, they’re just constructed like soundbites. The first uses social math that might be helpful for a lower-48-based audience, the second builds a tiny bit of tension by reversing the statement, and the third uses parallel construction and plays off the double meaning of “hot spot” in the context of tourism and studying diseases, respectively. (My next post will offer a taxonomy of soundbites, which builds off ones Hayes and his co-author, science journalist Daniel Grossman, developed.)

A template for science-based policy

For policy-relevant science, a slightly more complex message template adds a few more elements.

  • Problem: What a project is trying to address.
  • Solution: What research suggests can address the problem.
  • Action: What steps or series of steps can flow from the studied solutions.
  • Benefits: What societal goals could be served by following these actions.

This template builds off some lessons from Christine Jahnke, who hosts excellent communications workshops and is the author of The Well-Spoken Woman.

Here’s an example of some public health research about heat exposure and climate change in low-income, high-rise apartment buildings from Jalonne White-Newsome, a remarkably talented science communicator:

JalonneWhiteNesomeBasicMessages

Note that the solution is general, but the action is specific. Many possible actions could flow from the analysis, but this was one we wanted to emphasize because people could act on it quickly and at no financial cost. Other actions included improving access to cooling centers – perhaps something to emphasize for a meeting with city planners – and reminding people to point their fans out the window to vent hot air instead of onto their bodies for temporary relief – a message one might emphasize for a one-on-one meeting with a senior.

And here’s a punched-up version:

JalonneWhiteNesomeBasicMessagesPunchedUp The first message uses people’s personal sense of time to connect back to changing climate patterns. The second uses some simple alliteration and the third paints a picture. The fourth juxtaposes the simplicity of the action with the gravity of the benefits.

When you start to come up with specifics like this, you can also see how the messages don’t necessarily have to go in this order, either. Imagine a TED-talk that opened with the benefit message: “What if a knock on your door could save your life?” Or imagine using the story of a specific floor captain as an intro. “I want to tell you about my research, but first I want to tell you about Gus…”

The variations are somewhat endless, which is kind of the point! There are no simple answers here and by consistently testing out new messages, one will find that the strongest survive.

Other message templates

The COMPASS message template is a popular one, especially among marine scientists. Sarah Myhre effectively used the organization’s template to help explain a set of papers she did about long term climate change and ocean life. The messages she developed were especially important for helping people understand that despite the dire nature of the findings that we still have a lot of societal choices to make about climate change.

Sarah Myhre's totally fleshed out message box. Whoa! (Source: Sarah Myhre via Medium. Click for the full post.)

Sarah Myhre’s totally fleshed out message box. Whoa! (Source: Sarah Myhre via Medium. Click for the full post.)

Note especially that Myhre included a lot of sub-messages in her template. This is a good example of a fully-fleshed out message box that starts with core messages and backs them up with sub-points, including ones she used for different contexts, such as discussing short-term and long-term solutions. Myhre’s message for other scientists?”  Fill out yer damn message box.” It really forces you to grapple with the specific of what you want to say.

I’ve run into a few other templates, too. They all share common features and they’re all framed slightly differently, so I think finding the right template is a matter of testing multiple ones out over time to see what works for an individual.

But what about the methods?

This is going to hurt a couple scientists…but few people outside the scientific community care about the methods scientists use. Not all of our audience members are going to be mini-scientists. They kind of know how science works, they respect scientists as experts and they really do think science is great, but they generally just don’t care about data collection, statistical analysis, computer models or lab work.

For poster sessions, methods are a must, naturally. But for public communication, they are usually secondary to what scientists know and why they think it matters. (Source: NASA / JPL)

For poster sessions, methods are a must, naturally. But for public communication, they are usually secondary to what scientists know and why they think it matters. (Source: NASA / JPL)

Are there exceptions? Sure. People who do field work have awesome stories about their methods. Sometimes we build great monuments to science like the James Webb space telescope or the Large Hardon Collider where the methods are part of the story. And sometimes methods are interesting because they’re particularly clever, novel, or relate-able. Other times methods involve the audience, especially when it comes to citizen science, so methods become a must for communication.

Additionally, when scientists find their work scrutinized in the press or by other scientists – or by interest groups or politicians – methods become part of the story, too, and scientists may even need to publicly defend them. 

But most of the time methods aren’t that interesting to outside audience. So, yes, scientists should be ready to explain them if asked, but they don’t have to prioritize them as they do with a scientific audience.

Some scientists chafe at this. After all, we know how important the methods are for actually doing good science. In that case, I sometimes ask them to think about whether or not they would ask a financial advisor, a civil engineer or a electrician to talk to them about their methods. They all have methods, after all. But thinking about this in professional terms helps us see that for most people outside our field, it’s the results we care about, not the nitty-gritty of getting to them.

A final exception to excluding methods would be talking with beat and trade reporters. They totally want to know about methods because they follow the literature closely and want to know about new and interesting trends in research. A thirty minute conversation about the ins-and-outs of the latest and greatest – or not-so-greatest – in epigenetics is quite valuable for someone who translates science to a broader audience. Similarly, methods – and their success or failure – are sometimes a big part of a story, for instance, the demise of the National Children’s Study.

Okay, okay, but what’s the story?

Randy Olson, a scientist-turned filmmaker has written an incredibly useful book about narrative communication in science. Good stories, he writes, set the scene, identify a tension and attempt to resolve it. Olson draws a number of insightful parallels between how English majors and Hollywood use story structures and how we think and talk about science.

His “ABT” template is deceptively simple and remarkably useful. I’ve compared it to the arrow in the FedEx logo. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

ABT stands for “and, but therefore” and it under-girds the exposition, tension and resolution of a solid narrative structure. Olson uses the example of an unwieldy presentation he was working on with some coastal scientists. After some back-and-forth, they realized there was a big universal story they were trying to tell:

For 8,000 years sea level has been stable AND civilizations have been built right to the edge of the ocean. BUT for the past 150 years sea level has been rising rapidly, THEREFORE it is now time to come up with a new management plan for coastal areas.

Every other thing they were trying to communicate hung off those three thoughts. It occurred to me after reading Olson’s book that my own go-to-message templates pretty much followed the same structure.

From earlier, but with ABT annotations:

  • Here’s what we know. (Here’s a thing AND another thing AND another thing…)
  • Here’s what’s new. (BUT then we found a new thing!)
  • Here’s why it matters. (THEREFORE, we concluded…)

Similarly, the four-part message template we looked at earlier treats the problem as an “and,” the solution as a “but” and takes the “therefore” and splits it into what can be done now (action) and why it makes sense to do so (benefits).

It really is all the same story structure and I often find myself looking at other people’s main messages and thinking, okay…but where’s the story? Or in other words…where’s the ABT? 

Sometimes the idea of embracing narrative makes scientists uncomfortable. The word carries a connotation of inaccuracy because of its connection to works of fiction. But the best, most accurate science journalism also follows narrative structures. Narrative is just how humans make sense of the world and in some ways, what science does is give us better, more accurate stories to tell ourselves, over time, about how our world works. Olson goes further and argues that the current structure of a scientific paper also has narrative roots, few of which are taught in grad school, unless one studies the history of science itself.

At the same time, people who disparage science constantly abuse narrative to put out inaccurate information. When I reviewed Olson’s’ book last year, I recalled that I’d often pointed to the vaccine “debate” as one in which a misleading narrative did a lot of damage. For instance, here’s my attempt at what an ABT from an anti-vaccine advocate like Jenny McCarthy might look like, based on an interview she did with CNN:

Vaccines are widely administered AND no one questions them, BUT when my child received vaccines he became autistic, THEREFORE we need to be suspicious of vaccines.

It’s a dangerously inaccurate story, but it’s also a memorable one for some parents. Bummer!

Luckily, there are a lot of scientists who are more than willing and able to push back against these misleading narratives. And the good news is that vaccination rates remain high. But beating back a misleading narrative requires telling accurate stories, too. Trying to fight narrative armed only with “and, and, and” structured presentations of the facts is, in Olson’s telling, like trying to swim upstream against a too-strong current.

Paul Offit, a pediatrician who has invested considerable time and effort debunking misinformation about vaccines, has a go-to story he uses to explain how easily we can be misled. I asked Olson to watch an Offit interview I like to use for media workshops and translate his story into an “ABT.”

Here’s a slightly tweaked version of what he came up with:

My wife was getting ready to give a child a vaccine AND as she was pulling the shot into the syringe the child had a seizure BUT if the child’s seizure had come after the shot, it would have been very difficult to convince the parents they weren’t connected THEREFORE we can’t trust anecdotes, we have to trust and the scientific method.

Is that more complex than Jenny McCarthy’s story? Sure. But it’s also true. And it’s coming from a credible source. I showed this interview to a few public health researchers once and one of them told us that she’s heard Offit tell that story many, many, many times. That made me smile. As marketers will tell you, by the time you’re tired of repeating your message, it’s probably just starting to sink in. Clearly, Offit had found an effective story that painted a memorable narrative for his audience and one that helped illustrate his broader message: please, parents, trust the science.

As Olson emphasizes throughout his workshops, this isn’t an easy fix or just another tool to get good at storytelling – nor is it an add-on to good communication –  it’s fundamental to figuring out effective, sticky messages that work for one’s audience.

Okay, but how does it make you feel?

My favorite question to ask scientists usually comes after we’ve figured out a few basic messages we want to convey: how does this make you feel?

When we consider this question, we allow ourselves to turn off our logical minds for a second and get to why we actually care about what we’re working on in the first place.

Like seriously answering a child who responds to every statement with “Why?” asking ourselves how we really feel about a topic eventually gets us to some fundamentals about why we do science communication in the first place: curiosity, excitement, worry, wonder, public service, the desire to heal pain, to create something new, or you know…

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

This also brings up a corollary question: what do we want our audience to feel? Hopefully, not boredom! We might want them to feel inspired, generous, angry or curious, too. I often ask myself this question in the context of social media sharing; why do I share the things I share online? What emotional trigger did a story hit for me that makes me want to tweet about it, comment on it or post it on Facebook? And what does posting that say about me to the people who follow me?

In practice, these are split-second decisions we make nearly every day. But at the level of message development, these questions are crucial for considering how and why people might share something online or in person.

I’ve also written before about how improv rules are useful for creative activities like message development or brainstorming new communications projects. If we’re clear that we’re just riffing and nothing is heading out the door without approval, it’s easier to say “yes” to the parts of the ideas we like, while savings the “nos” for later. Truly, when it comes to translating messages into soundbites, metaphors, compelling visuals or stories, we have to stop nitpicking to think creatively.

Create scaleable messages

I had an old rule that I liked to follow about main messages: stick to three and have no more than five. They can be backed up by sub-points, but three is usually as many as you want for a short media interview and a fourth message is a bonus.

As the communications landscape has changed, I’ve focused instead on another way of framing the question: what’s the one thing you absolutely want to say in an interview or with a specific audience? If you truly only had just 20 seconds to get your message across, what would it be? And what would you just beat yourself up over if you forgot to mention? Okay, now what else would you convey?

This suggests a different way of coming up with main messages, which is to prioritize them even more scrupulously. Such are the cognitive demands the modern communications environment places on us that sometimes we really only do have the chance to convey one message with a given audience. (This is another reason Olson’s ABT is so useful, by the way – it produces a short, standalone complete sentence.)

These questions are also useful because they help us think through how we can convey information at different timescales. My old colleague Matt Heid, who also blogs about outdoor gear and adventuring, often asked me what the 1 second, 10 second and 1 minute version of a message could be. That’s a great set of filters for thinking about how we share and consume information online, especially since it’s our attention which remains limited and distracted. One could similarly think about a 1 second headline message, a 10 second headline plus lead paragraph message, and a 1 minute and more message for people who are more engaged with the content one produces.

These filters work well in other contexts, too, depending on your audience. A good email needs an effective 1-second subject line. Trying to talk to a speaker at a packed conference after their session might be just a 10 second encounter. Make it count.

These attention span limits scale up, too. Another colleague, environmental engineer and science policy wonk Gretchen Goldman, produces briefing books to accompany new research. They include a quick rundown of top messages as well as an expanded version with sub-points to inform longer interviews or talks. Beyond that, one is often at the point of simply saying, “Thanks for your interest. Here’s an executive summary and the full paper for your reading pleasure! Woohoo!”

Messages that Don’t Work Are Not the Audience’s Fault

One final point: I wish these messages could all be more complex. I wish education were better, that critical thinking courses were a prerequisite in every public and private school, that people read more books, and that the political system did more to reward policymakers who rely on scientific expertise. I think everyone reading this blog feels the same way.

But that’s no excuse to throw our hands up and bemoan how hard it is to come up with messages that work. It just means we need to be more creative, more adaptable and more in tune with how people consume information. It also means being aware of our own biases; the messages that feel right for our fellow nerds can carry cultural baggage that make them duds or that backfire with other audiences.

The fun part of science communication, the challenging part, and the part that produces real moments of connection with our fellow citizens…those are the parts we remember. And those are the parts worth striving for and sharing with our colleagues, too.

Continue reading

There is No General Public: Starting with Audience for Stronger Science Communication Plans

When people say they want to reach the “general public,” I have to admit that I tend to grimace just a bit. General publics are a squishy concept and massively general audiences can be hard to reach with any science communications effort, especially one with limited resources.

It’s much more effective for science communicators to focus on specific audiences, instead. And there a few key questions science communicators can ask themselves when embarking on the first phases of a project to figure out who their audiences really are and how they can reach them.

The post below covers how I tend to approach identifying an audience and planning a science communications campaign designed to effectively reach them. In addition to the post, I’ve also created a Google spreadsheet planning template with examples. You can download them as a PDF, too.

There is no general public, or at least they’re harder to reach nowadays

So many of our assumptions about communication are still grounded in the old world of big, legacy broadcast and print media. Until the digital revolution of the 2000s, Americans generally shared a broad, baseline, coastal-tinged version of reality thanks to network news and big national newspapers. But that shared reality has been fracturing, meaning we have many overlapping specific publics and no real general public anymore.

For instance, while millions of people still tune into major network newscasts, viewership for those programs has declined dramatically over the past 30-plus years. Since the early 1990s, the percentage of Americans who watch the major nightly newscasts has fallen from about 60 to 27 percent. Further, the number of people employed by online-only news outlets just surpassed the number employed by legacy newspapers.

That is literally the way it was. We don't live in Cronkite's media world any more, but sometimes assume we do. (Source: NASA.gov)

That is literally the way it was. We don’t live in Cronkite’s media world any more, but sometimes assume we do. (Source: NASA.gov)

Similarly, the original broadcast of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos received a 9.1 rating, meaning about 9 percent of all households with a television tuned in. By contrast, the Neil deGrasse Tyson and Seth MacFarlane reboot received a rating of 2.9. Both of these were smash hits; both of them were great pieces of science communication, but Sagan’s Cosmos was broadcast in 1980. Thirty-four years later an equally great effort only had a third of the reach.

Of course, a major television network documentary series is the pinnacle of mass science communication. Few of us have access to the kind of resources one needs to pull something like that off, anyway. And science coverage on major network news is just a small part of what those outlets focus on.

Further, what we didn’t have thirty years ago was a globally linked web-based information network. Being able to reach specific audiences more directly – for instance through sites devoted to science news, water quality, battery technology or healthy eating for toddlers – is an incredibly powerful thing. It means we can tailor our efforts much more so than we used to be able to, but it also means we have to do more work finding our audience and figuring out where they get information.

Successful communication starts with your audience

Good science communication efforts start with identifying a priority audience and a desired goal. The questions I like to focus on fall along the following lines:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the audience like?
  • What will the audience know or do?
  • What channels does the audience use to get information?
  • How can a science communication campaign get into those channels?

Who is the audience?

Audiences might include scientific peers, policy makers, funders, communities affected by scientific research findings, or participants in citizen science projects. It’s up to scientists, managers and communications staff to decide how many of these audiences are truly important and worth prioritizing.

There is no mountain tall enough and no megaphone big enough to reach every audience. (Though I'm sure a physicist could contradict that for me!) Source: GettyImages.

There is no mountain tall enough and no megaphone big enough to reach every audience. (Though I’m sure a physicist could factcheck that for me!) Source: GettyImages.

Of course, these audiences can and do cross-over with one another and good science communication plans can and will have multiple audiences. But going overboard and trying to reach too many audiences at once can dilute the effectiveness of a plan. That’s why when I do communications planning, I like to identify priority, secondary and tertiary audiences.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that for scientists, the primary audience is usually their peers. Communicators who neglect that will often wind up talking past their scientist colleagues, as I’ve written about before.

But back to those other audiences. Say a group is studying drought in Southern California and wants to reach individual homeowners to help educate them about the most effective water conservation steps they can take at home. Or perhaps they want to recruit them for a study about water use. That’s a somewhat specific audience, but it can be narrowed down even further. Are we talking about apartment dwellers or people with detached houses? Are we talking about homes that were recently constructed or ones with old plumbing? Those kinds of questions can lead to geographic and socioeconomic filters for figuring out one’s primary audience and how best to reach them.

Or consider an effort aimed at reaching coastal policy makers. That’s a broad category which could include everyone from the Army Corps of Engineers to my old Congressman in New Jersey and the mayors and town councils that dot the Jersey Shore.

Is a researcher studying coastal policy-making as it relates to state and national parks? Perhaps proximity to those natural resources is a good way to narrow the audience even further. Are they studying how communities recover from flooding? Towns and cities that experienced significant flooding in the past few years are much more likely to be interested than ones that have stayed dry for a decade or longer.

Is it an audience of funders? In that case, there may be an established funding process that scientists need to follow, making this task a bit clearer. But maybe they’re seeking corporate or foundation funding from smaller institutions without set protocols and need to think more specifically about who controls the various purse strings at those institutions.

Getting specific about audience at the outset allows communicators and scientists to more effectively develop and deploy their – often limited! – resources.

What is the audience like?

When we do planning in science communication, it’s easy to overlook this question because we might share some basic assumptions about an audience that we’re not used to articulating or challenging. But if we step back and start thinking objectively about our different audiences, we can do a better job reaching them where they’re at, avoiding pitfalls and using resources effectively.

Imagine you list your audience as “Simpsons characters.” D’oh! They’re all quite different, so if your audience is that broad, the only thing they might have in common is general antipathy toward Shelbyville.

How old are they? An audience in their 60s is going to be a lot more comfortable with mainstream media coverage and Facebook than Instagram and Twitter.

What do they already know about what you work on? Explicitly stating the assumptions – or lack of assumptions – an audience may have about a scientific topic can be an enlightening exercise. Apartment dwellers whose water bills are baked into their rent may have barely thought about water use in their home before. People who garden and maintain their lawns may feel like they already know a lot about how much water they use and will filter information about a new water-use study through that lens.

What’s their class and education level? Blue collar and white collar communities speak different languages and have different concerns. Saving a few bucks a month on a water or electricity bill is likely to be more motivating for a blue collar family than a white collar one. Conversely, a white collar family may have the luxury of worrying about remote environmental concerns since their own air and water is relatively clean while a blue collar family may be more focused on the here and now and their own backyards.

How much do they trust scientists or a given scientific institution? A UCLA study will carry a lot more weight in Pasadena than one from Ohio State or Harvard, regardless of the quality of the data or the nature of the conclusions. Similarly, a federal agency may have fraught relationships in a given area for reasons that have nothing to do with a project at hand, but a company or local NGO it’s partnering with may not and could ultimately be a stronger messenger.

Does politics matter? Once people start looking at a scientific topic through a political or ideological lens, science communicators have to account for that context. Trying to “science” at people who view a topic as something that’s tied to their deeper ideological beliefs and values almost never works. Instead, science communicators have to think about where they and their audience share beliefs and values and who they might partner with from outside the scientific community to foster more values-based communication that’s still grounded in the facts.

What will the audience know or do?

Again, this is a question that often goes unasked when doing communications planning. Science communication must be good, we think, so we want to do more science communication. But to what precise end? Or put more simply, why the heck are we doing communications about this in the first place? Successfully answering this question leads projects to the quality metrics that a campaign can and should measure as much as possible.

Communications is rife with shallow metrics, from impressions to reach to page views and downloads and eyeball time. It’s no good to swim in data that isn’t useful. Knowing that more people are sharing an organization’s posts on Twitter over time tells us so little about who those people are or why their sharing tendencies serve a deeper goal, but we treat that trend as a great success none the less.

So what do we really want people to think, feel, or do in response to a communications effort? Reactions can vary!

3054981-inline-i-2-these-are-the-bill-nye-reaction-gifs-you-didnt-know-you-needed (1)

Bill Nye is pleased by your efforts! (Source: FastCompany)

Bill Nye watching C-Span hearings and SpaceX launches, respectively. (Source: FastCompany)

Consider some of these possible goals and questions. Do you want an audience to:

  • Vaccinate their kids? A campaign could have a before-and-after set of stats on vaccination rates that gets to how effective the communication was. Indeed, metrics like this are about as real as it gets. Of course we don’t all work on vaccines, so sometimes it’s useful to think: “How would I think about this if it were a public health campaign?”
  • Develop a deeper appreciation for scientific research funding? This is squishier, but measures could include public opinion polls, how policymakers vote or even overall levels of funding year to year with controls for other variables.
  • Understand the long-term toll water pollution is taking on a community? Again, this could be measured through polling. Or perhaps it could be measured through the number of public comments an agency receives over time or the number of people who show up to regular meetings about water quality before and after a communications effort is deployed.
  • Be overwhelmed by splendorous images from a space telescope? Okay, that would be a fun project. Perhaps it could be measured through not just how many times those images are viewed online but also how often they are shared and the sentiment of the commentary that goes along with those shares. If a museum is sponsoring such a project, maybe their ultimate goal is to turn those online shares into in-person visits, donations and other kinds of support for a museum’s mission.

Measuring the efficacy of communications campaigns is so important and it doesn’t happen often enough. In the post-Walter-Cronkite world, it’s no longer-sufficient to “get the message out there.” The message needs to be delivered effectively and accurately to an audience that can use it. That’s what counts, especially in such a noisy media environment.

What channels does the audience use to get information?

The digital media revolution means that people’s attention is divided and highly segmented, so that means communicators have to think more and more specifically about where people will see and hear information related to their work.

All of us. (Source: hayleyanne93.wordpress.com)

All of us. (Source: hayleyanne93.wordpress.com)

Media

Local papers, radio and television stations are the mainstays of most science communications efforts. Location matters. Or in social science terms, media has a proximity bias. For instance, a public lecture from a principal investigator could absolutely be of interest to a local paper even if it’s a pass for a regional daily.

I also tend to think of science-focused and trade media as being on an adjacent track to general interest media. Not only are trade outlets more likely to cover a science or technical story for an engaged audience, but they’re also where a lot of general interest journalists and outlets learn about new happenings in a given field. In fact, trade journalists all have stories of mainstream outlets seemingly (and actually!) copying their ideas without attribution.

That said, science communicators instinctively turn to the media as the chief place to get coverage and validation for their work. That’s often right. But other channels can be equally or even more valuable depending on the audience.

Blogs

Local or speciality blogs can be more powerful than mainstream media outlets for connecting with a very specific audience. An influential regional real-estate blog might be a perfect fit for talking about water conservation precisely because of the property owners, managers and prospective property owners who read the blog. A lot of blogs are also happy to have people guest-post, presuming they’re on topic and add value for that blog’s audience.

Science bloggers at mainstream outlets, places like Scienceblogs.com, and folks who blog on their own are also a great option for reaching the “science-engaged” public, though they naturally have their own interests and idiosyncrasies, as we all do.

Email, websites and social media

Every science communication project should have an email list and a website for direct communication and showing up in search results about a project, respectively.

Selecting which social media channels to publish on is an important choice; picking too many can be a time-consuming hassle. Picking the 1 to 3 channels a primary audience uses, or 1 channel each for primary and secondary audiences can be a reasonable choice. For instance, a scientific project working with a variety of community groups that already have strong Facebook followings should join that network. At the same time, they may be publishing educational videos for a K-12 audience that are a natural fit for Youtube, so they’d want to join that community and consider potential collaborations with established channels.

Channels for policymakers

Many times, people assume they have to get media coverage for a policymaker to care about a topic. That’s not always true. Science communicators should never forget that the simplest way to get to a policymaker is to call their office and ask for a meeting. It can really be that easy. Of course, every policymaker is different and even at the local level, they can feel like they’re drinking from a firehose when it comes to people hitting them up with information they think is important.

Get creative

Going back to the example of a water use study, a campaign might consider reaching homeowners. Who tends to own homes? People with kids. So communicating with parents through a PTA meeting or a school list-serv might be a good, indirect way to reach that audience. And it might even get to a given audience more efficiently than attempting to contact a local newspaper and hoping that they’ll cover a project.

Similarly, we shouldn’t be afraid to try things that are different. The CDC made a big splash several years ago when it repackaged its disaster preparedness advice as if it applied to a zombie apocalypse. Super-brave for a federal agency and super-effective. NOAA should also be commended for a genuinely funny press release in which they advised beachgoers that there is no selfie-stick long enough to safely take pictures with baby seals. Generating ideas for creative campaigns like that is tough, of course. Two good resources to help prompt some potentially powerful ideas are Contagious by Jonah Berger (affiliate | non-affiliate) and The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott (affiliate | non-affiliate).

Avoid shiny objects

There’s so much cool stuff going on in digital communication now it’s easy to overthink format at the expense of message and audience. For instance, developing an app, an online game or a Pinterest board might be a good fit for a campaign. Or it might not. Who will use the app and why? Who will play the online game and what message will they take away from it? Are we trying to reach an audience that uses Pinterest already or will using that network be a barrier to entry from some of our audience members?

We shouldn’t adopt new communications tools simply because they’re new. We should adopt them because they make sense for our audiences.

Picking a good mix

Your audience might be getting information from ALL these sources, including Pinterest, the New York Times and their homeowner association’s Facebook page. Or some super hip social network that got invented five minutes ago. Effectively reaching an audience usually means using a mix of communications channels, each of which will have advantages and drawbacks and varying levels of resource and time commitment associated with them.

How can a science communication campaign get into those channels?

This step is where communications planning – and ambition – starts to turn into action. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. For instance, if a campaign is thinking too broadly about its audience, it may realize it’s trying to bite off more than it can chew; maybe they really can’t reach a million people with new and awesome space data visualizations in just two months. But maybe they can, especially if they can successfully pitch a few of the big news outlets that cover space or reach out to big-time astronomy Tweeters. But to do that, the campaign needs email addresses, introductions, handles and other ways to be in touch with the folks who control those channels.

At this point in planning, the amount of staff time involved can vary widely. If a campaign already has a relationship with a beat reporter it may not be very time-consuming at all to reach out to them and help them do a story related to the topic at hand. If they have no relationship, building one and getting on someone’s radar can and should take more time.

Finding out who to contact at a news outlet usually requires some time on Google and Twitter. While there are useful, powerful press databases out there (Vocus is the industry leader), there is no good substitute for reading a journalist’s work and deciding whether or not it makes sense to pitch them. People who work in media are inundated with off-base pitches; thoughtfully narrow pitches are almost always a better bet, especially for resource-strapped science communicators.

Along a different track, if a campaign decides something like in-person PTA meetings are the way to go, they need to start figuring out who runs each of those meetings. For local outreach like that, Facebook and LinkedIn are useful for mapping a network and seeing if staff members know anyone who knows anyone who can make an intro. Just don’t be creepy about it!

Additionally, when plans get to this level of figuring out who to reach out to and how, the benefits of prioritization become quite evident. Perhaps an audience that’s very hard to reach becomes secondary instead of primary. Once a plan starts accounting for how much time it takes to really do the communications work for various audiences, it becomes clear that not all audiences are going to get the same amount of time and attention.

Under-planning, over-planning, revisiting assumptions and adapting

It’s tough to find the sweet-spot for how much time we need to spend developing and honing a communications plan. That said, there are some hallmarks of under-planning and over-planning that are worth watching out for.

Under-planning usually involves focusing too much on a shiny communications object, say a video, a specific event or someone’s pet idea. These sort of one-off communications efforts can work, but it’s harder for them to have a sustained impact for an audience. Under-planning can also involve metric-chasing, the process by which we mysteriously start to get super-excited by the number of times something is shared on social media instead of asking ourselves who is sharing it and to what end.

Over-planning is more rare, at least in my experience. Communications is all too often an afterthought in scientific endeavors.

The most common form of over-planning I’ve run into is a focus on what haters or trolls will say about a given project. The short answer is they will probably cast aspersions in their corner of the Internet then move onto the next thing they want to get mad about. It’s not worth shaping a significant portion of a communications plan around the reactions of an unpersuadable audience.

I’ve also occasionally run into paralysis-by-analysis. There are few easy answers in communication and it’s tempting to think that paying for more polls, more focus groups, or doing another round of internal or stakeholder feedback will somehow produce them. At some point, communicators have to stop planning and start learning by doing.

In some cases, campaigns will actively plan for learning-by-doing by picking one or two small efforts to deploy in the real world. That’s smart and it can help communicators efficiently deploy resources at later stages of a campaign.

Overall, I prefer to do adaptive planning like that. Rather than assuming we can release science communications efforts into the world and watch the results trickle in, we have to be both proactive and reactive. Doing so requires regular check-ins to respond to audience feedback (or silence!) as it comes in. It also requires big-picture check-ins – perhaps on a quarterly or annual basis – to revisit all these assumptions about audiences, goals and the kinds of results we really want to see.

Continue reading

Responding to Science News Coverage: From Corrections to Celebration

This is part of a series on helping scientists effectively work with journalists. The first installment covers what scientists and science communicators should consider before an interview. To read the rest of the series, along with a handy checklist for conducting media interviews, buy the ebook on Amazon or a get a complementary copy when you support this work on Patreon.

This installment covers what to do after an interview. Science coverage is no longer a series of news clips. It’s an ongoing conversations in which journalists, scientists, audiences and editors are participating. In this chapter, I share best practices for asking for corrections, amplifying good coverage and understanding the distinctions journalists make between factual accuracy and the angles and context they use to shape a story.

 

Continue reading

Four Things Scientists Should Watch Out for During Media Interviews

This is part of a series on helping scientists effectively work with journalists. The first installment covers what scientists and science communicators should consider before an interview. To read the rest of the series, along with a handy checklist for conducting media interviews, buy the ebook on Amazon or a get a complementary copy when you support this work on Patreon.

This part of the series covers what to avoid during an interview, including key strategies for answering badly framed or off-the-wall questions.

 

Continue reading

Five Ways Scientists Can Conduct More Effective Interviews

This is part of a series on helping scientists effectively work with journalists. The first installment covers what scientists and science communicators should consider before an interview. To read the rest of the series, along with a handy checklist for conducting media interviews, buy the ebook on Amazon or a get a complementary copy when you support this work on Patreon.

This installment, now a chapter in a new ebook, covers the ins and outs of conducting a media interview, including best practices for handling jargon and how to emphasize key points in ways that help journalists do their jobs.

 

Continue reading

What Scientists and Science Communicators Should Consider Before an Interview

This is the first of a four-part series I wrote on how scientists can effectively work with journalists. Subsequent installments include best practices for interviews, pitfalls to avoid, and what to do after an interview. To read the rest of the series, along with a handy checklist for conducting media interviews, buy the ebook on Amazon or a get a complementary copy when you support this work on Patreon.

Science communicators tend to focus on the end-products of journalism: the writing, audio and video that audiences see. But a significant portion of the work that goes into informing and contributing to a good story takes place before an interview happens. Here are some considerations for what scientists can do when a journalist first reaches out to them.

Set a time

When a journalist calls, scientists will often pick up the phone and just start talking. That can be fine for journalists they know and with whom they’ve worked before, but it’s usually better to gather one’s thoughts first and think through the most important messages to convey in response to a specific request.

In response to a request, it’s fair to ask journalists what they’re working on, what kind of angle they’re interested in on a given story, what they need from a scientist, and what their deadline is like. When a journalist reaches out – even if they’re on a tight deadline – it’s perfectly fine to arrange a time to talk later, even if it’s literally just a few minutes in the future. Scheduling interviews can also help media work feel more like part of one’s job as a publicly facing researcher and less like an interruption or distraction.

Journalists also understand that their sources are busy and are happy to be flexible with scheduling, at least within the confines of their deadline. But if a source has to put them off for too long, they may wind up going with someone else. Journalism is a fast-paced business and reporters like sources who go out of their way to make themselves available, especially when they’re feeling crunched.

Set a time limit

Scientists have a lot of knowledge to share, so it’s quite easy for them to start talking about a lot of different related topics during an interview. That can lead to miscommunication, usually in the form of a story quoting a scientist in a way that strikes them as out-of-context.

One simple thing scientists can do to bring a little more focus to their interviews is to set a time limit for them. A quick reaction quote to some breaking news might take just a few minutes, for instance, while a discussion about a new paper could take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour depending on the type of story the journalist is doing and the level of depth a scientist thinks is required for a robust response. Those time limits can apply to conversations as well as how long a scientist spends crafting an email response to questions.

This is also a straightforward way to address a complaint I often hear from scientists: that working with the media is simply too time-consuming. It certainly can be, but that doesn’t have to be the case. And of course, time limits are just guideposts. If a journalist has more important questions to ask, it’s fine to amend a time limit mid-interview. 

Learn more about a journalist’s work

It’s worth taking time to review a few recent stories from a journalist to get a sense of how they or their outlet approach the topic at hand. The quality of journalism on a given topic – like the quality of science! – can vary widely, as we all know. It’s a mistake to lump all journalists and news outlets together as “the media,” just as it’s a mistake to lump all the worlds scientists together as a monolithic profession.

After some searching, a scientist or public information officer may discover that a journalist does excellent in-depth reporting on related fields and is new to the one they’re asking about. Or they may see that an outlet is focused on 500-word briefs about new findings, with a special focus on news-you-can-use. Or they may see warning flags from an outlet that puts a sensationalist spin on a topic that’s perceived as controversial.

Beyond Google, looking at a journalist’s Twitter feed and LinkedIn profile can also give a scientist or public information officer a sense of the kind of work they’ve done before and what they’ve been paying attention to recently: do they lean more toward science writing, local beat reporting, or policy writing for instance? And do they have a scientific background? These social networks also let you know who you have in common, including other scientists and other journalists, which can often serve as a quick proxy for credibility and knowledge about a given topic.

These are all important pieces of context to know for ensuring that scientists give journalists the type of information they need for the story at hand. When scientists neglect to match their message – and it’s level of depth, precision and complexity – to the audience or media outlet at hand, they run a higher risk of being misquoted or misunderstood.

It’s also the best way for scientists to avoid playing into agenda-driven reporting from partisan or ideological media sources, especially as new outlets proliferate. It’s perfectly fine to refer such outlets to other sources who might be more amenable to mixing it up, whether that’s other scientists or advocacy organizations that work on a given topic. Or a scientist may opt to do an interview, anyway, knowing that they’re doing so with open eyes.

Since pretty much everything in the media is online now, it’s easy to spend a lot of time on this step. At a minimum, even if I’m slammed and the reporter is on a very tight deadline, I like to read at least a few recent articles a journalist has written if I’m not already familiar with their work. I also like to search news sites for stories about the topic at hand and – again, at a minimum – scan the headlines and lead paragraphs to get a big-picture sense of the approach the outlet takes.

Understand where journalists are in their process

It’s important for scientists to match their depth of interaction with a reporter’s needs. Generally speaking, the longer the lead time a journalist is working with, the more flexibility they’ll have in considering new angles for their work and the more time they’ll have to interact with scientists.

If a journalist is looking for a reaction quote on deadline, they might just need a few minutes of a scientist’s time. At this point, journalists might have most of their story done, so they’re simply not going to be open to taking on an entirely new angle or sub-topic in that moment.

A journalist working with a longer lead-time might feel more open to different frames for thinking about a given issue. Maybe they’ll start off interested in a particular endangered species, for instance, but then a scientist tells them that the critter’s fate is best understood in the context of competition among different land management agencies in the region. In that case, the reporter may start thinking about the species as a hook for a broader story rather than the story in and of itself.

And on the other end of the spectrum, a journalist might be embarking on a multi-month research project or casting about for new stories entirely. In these moments, journalists are like vacuums for perspectives, information and data. This is when scientists and public information officers have full license to bombard journalists with entirely too much information. It’s also at this point that they might consider collaborations that can help bring data and research to life, especially if a journalist is doing original analysis.

Tailoring messages to different needs and knowledge levels

At a science communication meeting, The Story Collider’s Liz Neely shared something that will stick with me for a long old time: scientists tend to overestimate audiences’ specific knowledge and underestimate their general intelligence.

This often holds for interactions scientists have with journalists, too. That dynamic can lead scientists to over-prepare for interviews, assembling data, analysis and citations a journalist doesn’t need, instead of stepping back and identifying effective explanatory models for a journalist and their audience instead.

For instance, a political beat reporter looking for a quick fact-check of a claim about vaccination rates making the rounds in a state legislature isn’t necessarily going to be interested in new survey methods that help elucidate or debunk that claim. They usually just need to know if a statement is scientifically defensible or not and a brief explanation as to why.

Such journalists might cover dozens of different topics in a given year, or more, which means that it’s an exception for them to be able to go deep into a particular area of scientific research. Scientists will bemoan those circumstances, for sure, and I do, too, but science is just part of the bigger picture in those cases. (Further, no one should underestimate the level of journalistic expertise it takes to report on a legislative body.)

The same sort of covering-lots-of-things dynamics often play out for business, general assignment and other non-science beat reporters who only occasionally find themselves needing some help from researchers. For those media interactions, journalists are usually looking for scientists to give them the top things they need to know about a topic. They’re placing their trust in scientists and scientific institutions to be credible and to steer them in the right direction.

Of course, science beat reporters are much better positioned to tackle topics in-depth. They’ve built up their own expertise over the years and the nature of their jobs means they often know more about what’s going on in a broad field of research than many individual scientists do. In those cases, scientists shouldn’t be afraid to totally nerd out.

Additionally, getting to work with a science beat reporter at a major news outlet is an opportunity a researcher should relish. Those journalists have a wide reach with the the public and their work also helps non-beat journalists understand what’s important in a given field.

At the same time, journalists (and public information officers) should feel free to tell scientists what level of depth they’re looking for when setting up an interview, too: undergrad, grad school or PhD level, for instance, are good short-hands.

Consider the impact of other sources

It’s useful for scientists to consider who else a journalist has talked to when compiling their story. Have they interviewed a few advocates who tend to overstate risks associated with an environmental pollutant? Or perhaps they’ve talked to a scientific peer who uses a very different approach for studying the same topic? Those early interviews can color the assumptions journalists go into later interviews with, even as they work to sort through claims and counter-claims.

Sometimes journalists feel like discussing other sources is a bit too much like tipping their hands. That’s fair. They can usually still describe what they’ve heard so far, so a scientist source has a better sense of where they’re at in their story.

Journalists can put these questions and similar ones back on scientists, too. For instance, the AP’s Seth Borenstein likes to ask researchers if they can name peers who disagree with them and whose opinions they respect. That’s a helpful way for him to gauge his source’s credibility, too, as well as where the fault lines are in a scientific community on a given subject.

Staying open to new things

Finally, I strongly encourage scientists to be open to requests from new outlets and new writers. We’re all trying to figure out how to best convey scientific information in a rapidly changing media environment. New formats are always worth experimenting with, too. I had no idea when I started in this field that I’d one day be excited about scientists doing “Ask Me Anythings” for a forum full of intelligent strangers on Reddit, for instance.

As with the science, the worst thing that usually happens when someone experiments is a null result: in media terms that means no one notices. And the best outcome is figuring out a new way to communicate our work or a way to reach a new audience.

Continue reading

Best Practices for Building Trust Between Scientists and Communications Staff

What you’re getting into: 1,200 words or about a six minute read. A video version of this lecture is available on Youtube.

A lot of advice in science communication seems straightforward. But it’s also open to interpretation – and misinterpretation – by scientists and communications staff alike. So it’s incredibly important for scientists and communicators to feel like they’re on the same team. That means being clear about our goals, our audiences and our roles in a given project. In short, it’s about trust, and it’s worth taking the time to build it.

For scientists, reputation rules

Science communication stills feels risky for a lot of researchers. In many ways, public information officers and other communicators are asking scientists to put their hard-earned professional reputations in their non-expert hands. That’s a very heavy thing to ask a scientist to do. So it’s not surprising that researchers often respond to ideas from communications staffers with reflexive skepticism. Scientists are constantly weighing what their peers – i.e. their toughest critics – will think about the communications work they do.

Indeed, when communications staffers march into a conference room brimming with excitement, here’s what I think scientists often hear.

What communications staff say What scientists can think
We’re excited! This could get a lot of attention. Be careful! This could get a lot of attention.
We have a lot of new ideas for our communications work. Here’s a new batch of untested, potentially risky ideas. Fire at will!
We think these new messages will resonate with our audiences. The perfectly accurate messages you’ve been using are total duds.
We want to produce a suite of new content for our audiences. We’ll soon be driving you to distraction with requests for review.

On the flip side, scientists’ skeptical reactions and instinctual critical thinking can come across as overly-negative for communication staffers:

What scientists say What communications staff can think
We need to be careful. This could easily lead to a lot of inaccuracies. They don’t trust us to do this accurately.
This doesn’t include important caveats. We’ll get roasted. Wow. They think we’d simplify things to the point of embarrassment.
What if [unlikely bad outcome] happens? They don’t think we can plan effectively or think on our feet.
We tried that before and it didn’t work. These scientists aren’t open to anything new!

Of course, communicators aren’t actually out to flummox scientists. And scientists aren’t out to be sticks in the mud or make communicators feel bad about doing their jobs. But if communicators and researchers aren’t clear about their goals and audiences, it’s very easy for them to talk past one another.

What to do? I can think of five approaches I’ve found useful in my career.

Always consider other scientists as a key audience

Communications staffers have to remember that scientists’ peers are their most important audience. Communications campaigns often focus on big gets like the New York Times or regional TV or radio programs. But communicators shouldn’t forget trade and specialty press in researchers’ fields. As science communicator Matthew Shipman puts it, those audiences might be small, but for a scientist, everyone in them matters.

Further, even if a communications project isn’t targeting other scientists at all, communications staffers should explicitly discuss how other scientists might react to the project. That’s often the driving force behind hesitancy in science communication, for reasons that are both good and bad. Nobody wants to make mistakes, but science is also a peculiarly hierarchical profession in which it can be risky to rock the boat, challenge the status quo and try new things.

Tackle the negative stuff first

Early in communications planning or idea vetting, I like to ask scientists, “What’s the most prevalent misinformation you deal with in your field?” and “What are the outcomes we absolutely want to avoid?” That helps ground the conversation in a shared understanding of what we don’t want to do, which can be a big time saver down the road.

For instance, scientists who work on detecting exoplanets are often wary of suggestions that the worlds they’re discovering could be colonized. It’s such a speculative, sci-fi topic that it can easily distract audiences from the here-and-now work they’re doing to advance our understanding of astronomy. Of course, that idea is a natural hook for communicators to think about because it’s a great way to capture people’s imagination. But for scientists, it quickly devolves into a misleading frame that they’d like to move on from as quickly as possible or avoid all together.

Be clear about process, especially right of last-review

Scientists should always enjoy right-of-last-review on materials, not only to ensure accuracy, but also to have some simple peace of mind. Everyone who works in communications knows how easy it is for inaccuracies to creep into the editing process, especially when multiple people are involved. When scientists know that they’re the last set of eyes on public materials, it creates a final check to ensure accuracy.

Right-of-last-review can also give scientists more room to think creatively earlier in the process. They don’t have to worry that a rhetorical flourish or risky idea now will turn into something inaccurate later when the project is in someone else’s hands.

Use improv rules when it’s time to brainstorm

Scientists are great at shooting things down. It’s a wonderful skill for peer review. But it can be a bummer for communicators when it’s time to come up with exciting new ideas. One helpful way to approach creative conversations is to adopt improv rules. Make it clear that nothing said in the room will go into public materials unless vetted. Also make it clear that it’s a time to respond to ideas with “yes, and…” statements rather than “no, but…” ones.

I’m always pleased when scientists adopt these ground rules, drop their defenses and let the ideas and silly riffs flow. And I always get a chuckle out of how unnaturally it comes to all of us who work in science communication! We’re so sensitive to accuracy, that it’s easy to miss opportunities like NASA’s guide to cooking a turkey using space gear, the CDC’s super-practical disaster preparedness advice for a zombie apocalypse or the graceful elegance of a glowing dinosaur who helps us track auroras. Like good art, these projects can look deceptively easy to come up with from the outside, but they all resulted from people giving themselves permission to do something different and doing the hard, detailed work it takes to bring these ideas to life.

Buddy up

Finally, if institutions have the resources and are doing big communications campaigns, I strongly recommend having a communications staffer and a scientist tag-team a project. “Co-managing” can seem like an inefficient use of time at first blush, but for science communication, it can work wonders.

Over time, a scientist will develop a deeper sense of what communicators and their audiences need.  A communicator, meanwhile, will become well-versed in the nuances of a given scientific topic.

What other ideas do you have for helping scientists and communications staff work more effectively together?

(Homepage image via Wikipedia)

Continue reading

Constructively dealing with trolls in science communication

Update (4/6/16): This has quickly turned into the most popular post on the site; it’s been so nice to hear from folks who have found it useful! If you have a minute after you’ve finished reading, please check out my other guides (and a list of pending topics). You can also sign up for my newsletter here

 What you’re getting into: a 3000 word guide to dealing with trolls in science communication, roughly a 10-minute read.

Trolls suck. They have a direct psychological impact on the people they target – from annoyance and vexation to frustration and anger. And they can make constructive online discussions on platforms like Twitter and Facebook nearly impossible. But dealing with trolls can be straightforward. Indeed, most public relations advice on trolling is consistent across industries and across topics: don’t feed the trolls, keep a level head, respond to more serious trolling on one’s own terms, and go back to dealing with reasonable people.

The advice is not much different in science communication, but trolls do have a unique impact in this particular field. First, trolls are irrational. But science-minded people are not. We tend to operate from the assumption that everyone else can and should act as rationally as we do. That’s a mistake, especially with trolls. Second, trolls attack people’s reputations and integrity in a way that is quite out of bounds in normal science-related discourse. These circumstances can feel so strange that scientists and science communicators often feel an urge to respond to trolls that would never occur to actors, musicians or other public figures who are targeted by them.

One of XKCD's best cartoons depicts the typical science communicator getting trolled.

One of XKCD’s best cartoons depicts the typical science communicator getting trolled.

Unfortunately, trolls are legion in some areas of science communication – especially climate, biotech and vaccines. And I’m honestly surprised to see scientists, science communicators and science journalists spend so much time interacting with and thinking and talking about their trolls.

The truth is that trolls are just bullies. They usually only talk to each other and no one outside their circles pays attention to what they have to say. But there are exceptions and it’s worth understanding why people troll and how scientists, science communicators, and even some science journalists who are targeted by trolls can effectively – and constructively – respond.

Recognizing trolls

Trolling had a slightly different meaning in the old, pre-digital-native Internet, but nowadays it usually means someone who posts nasty things online with the intent of provoking a reaction, usually emotional, from their targets.

Ideologues will often use trolling or troll-like tactics to target individuals with whom they disagree, including scientists, science communicators and journalists. They threaten people, call them names, twist their words, accuse them of believing things they don’t believe and sometimes even make mean memes about them if they’ve learned how to use a graphics program.

If someone works on an issue that gets trolled a lot, it’s easy to assume that any criticism or questioning of one’s work is coming from an unreachable troll. Most of the time that’s exactly the case: the only people motivated enough to complain are people who already have unshakable opinions.

There are exceptions, though. Sometimes, well-meaning critics will come along who simply aren’t aware that they’re stepping on well-trodden turf. Similarly, people who have been exposed to inaccurate and mean-spirited messages on a given topic may innocently make a point or ask a question not knowing that it comes across as trolling. 

The good news is that there are still many people who can engage in spirited, but civil disagreements, including online, without resorting to troll-like tactics. So it’s important not to assume that all critics or even all sources of scrutiny are trolling.

If someone is ever wondering about whether or not they’re being trolled, trolls will usually out themselves quickly, within just one to two interactions, in my experience. The hallmarks of trolling on science-related issues include:

  • Gish Galloping or creating straw men instead of responding to the points a target makes
  • Insisting they know what a target really means instead of taking responses at face value
  • Posing an endless series of questions to create more grist for trolling
  • A seeming inability to acknowledge that other people may have different, valid opinions
  • Attempts to score points with a perceived audience rather than engage in direct dialogue
  • Taking a target’s statements out of context by twisting single words and short phrases
  • Failing to cite sources or citing sources that don’t back up claims
  • Focusing on criticism and complaints to the exclusion of solutions
  • Quickly devolving into ad hominem arguments

Emotional responses to trolling

When a stranger insults us online, it can still feel very personal despite the fact that that person doesn’t know us. Our first instinct when trolled is to defend ourselves and to assert our own honesty, integrity or rationality. But the decision to troll actually says a lot more about the troll than it does about their target.

Consider the reality of the situation. Someone is sitting on one other end of an Internet connection “yelling” at someone else through their keyboard.

Why are they doing this? Usually it’s because they’re angry. Their political beliefs are so strong that they feel justified going after anyone they see as opposed to them. Or maybe they feel helpless and want to use social media to lash out at people they perceive as more powerful than they are. Some studies have found that trolls are psychologically much meaner than the average person, too, exhibiting traits like sadism and psychopathy, leading them to revel in the mischief they can create online.

Nelson

How most trolls feel on the inside.

Before someone reacts to a troll, if at all, they should consider what the troll wants a target to feel so they can better control their own reactions:

Embarrassment and shame – Trolls want their targets to think they are getting publicly shamed by a wide and influential audience. And social media platforms, especially Twitter, can make it seem like more people are paying attention to trolls than they actually are. Further, trolls will often tag or cc people they see as having influence over their targets, including institutions, peers, supervisors, and other powerful figures. That can seem daunting to a target, but it’s actually an indication that a troll is just flailing around to provoke any kind of reaction they can muster. Indeed, when we see other people getting trolled, we tend not to care that much and that’s the same way other people feel when they see us getting trolled. Trolls have a lot less power than we give them credit for.

Worry – Trolls want their targets to feel hesitant to speak and write about their work. By creating a negative and nasty environment around a given topic, trolls hope to poison the well to the point where they are the only ones left drinking from it.

Anger – Trolls really love pissing people off. It makes them feel powerful – they got under someone’s skin! – and angry responses give trolls another round of grist to mill for more trolling.

How should targets feel instead?

Pride –  Trolls target people who they think have more power and influence than they do. If you’re getting trolled, you’re probably having an impact.

Amusement – Most troll arguments are pretty silly. Treating them seriously often gives them far more credence than they deserve. People who are targeted by trolls should imagine how they would react if they saw a tough-as-nails peer being targeted in the same way. Might they find it ridiculous and blow it off? Or even make fun of it?

Sympathy, empathy and grace – Trolling is honestly pretty pathetic behavior. As with adolescent bullies, it’s worth considering what sort of pain and anger is behind someone’s trolling. There’s surely very little one can do from afar to ease a troll’s suffering, but consider this: interacting with a troll can be unhealthy for the troll, too, because it encourages them to keep trolling, feeding into whatever negative emotion is causing them to lash out on the Internet in the first place.

Does anyone care? Trolls and their insular audiences

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are built to make us think that everything happening on social media is super-duper important. (Notification! You’ve got a dozen favorites! Bing bing bing!) But just because something is on social media doesn’t mean that anyone cares, is paying attention or will even remember it seven seconds from now. The same principles largely extend to email, though that medium is more private.

CVZRuMcW4AAc5Te

OMG A NOTIFICATION!!!

People who are targeted by trolls should ask themselves: Are other people liking, retweeting or sharing what the troll is posting? If they are, do I care what those people think? How many followers do the trolls have? Are they just following each other? How in the weeds would someone have to go to even follow what the trolls are talking about?

Most of the time, trolls on science-related topics are part of a loose, insular network of the same old folks. Their attacks are like a rolling bar fight that just keeps spilling over into new venues. And even when they succeed in getting short bursts of wider attention for their antics – for example, when a few racist idiots “boycotted” Star Wars – nobody remembers just a few days later.

When trolls actually do matter

Every once in awhile, trolls can leverage their online pestering into something more serious, opening the door to media coverage or attention from policymakers. That’s usually the point at which a target should consider some sort of robust, on-the-record response. Why then? Because it’s the threshold at which other people in one’s profession might start to pay attention and think that something might be amiss. It’s also the point at which trolls might affect the Google search results for a target’s name, especially if they don’t have much of an established Internet footprint already. Indeed, this is the one major long-term consequence victims of trolling campaigns have to deal with, as British journalist Jon Ronson has chronicled.

Another case is corporate and front-group-backed trolling, which is usually used to target public interest scientists and journalists. In those cases, it can be hard to differentiate between negative, grassroots-level troll sentiment and professional trolls who stoke that sentiment. Regardless, it’s worth calling out if it looks like an attempt by industry groups to warp public debates.

Finally, trolling doesn’t just happen with strangers on Twitter. It also happens in academia and in media when individuals and institutions violate professional norms by attacking people through innuendo, mischaracterizations, threats, lies and personal attacks.

Scaled responses to trolling

Responding to trolls can be straightforward and should be tailored to their persistence level and a target’s stomach for engaging.

Ignore: As with bullies, the best way to respond to a troll is to ignore them. It tells the troll they have no power or influence over their target and most of them will quickly move back under their bridge.

Block buttons exist for a reason: The other simple response to trolls is to block them. No, seriously, block them. Blocking isn’t censorship or an admission of defeat – it’s simply a filter, in the same way we install ad blockers on browsers or choose not to tune into shows we don’t like. It’s so disappointing when I see scientists and other reasonable professionals waste their time responding to trolls. Surely, we all have better things to do. Similarly, targets can auto-archive emails from trolls, report them for spam, and otherwise close off the communications channels trolls use to target them.

Minimize responses Arguing with a troll is like mud wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it. Trolls thrive off provoking people, so ignoring them is usually the best way to get them to move on.

Hooray, the science nerds are arguing with me! Oink oink!

Hooray, the science nerds are arguing with me! (Also, to be fair to the pigs,this is actually not fun for them. It’s hard to find a picture of a pig that looks happy in this situation! Picture links back to source; Post-Crescent via USA Today.)

If you absolutely must respond to a troll, just make it a one-and-done:

  • “Hey – That’s not what I meant, but thanks for stopping by..”
  • “That’s certainly a perspective. Thanks for sharing.”
  • “I’ve heard that before. Here’s a link…”
  • “Haha. Good one.”
  • “Interesting. Thanks.”
  • “Hmmm.”

Imagine reading these messages from the troll’s perspective. What are they going to do with that? Usually nothing because they’re being denied the emotional response they want. Of course, some trolls will take anything a target writes even a “hmmm” and try to twist it. In that case, if you have to respond, just send them an on-point link with no additional commentary. Trolls don’t actually read links – that would require genuine curiosity – and they don’t trust their perceived audience to read links either, so it’s usually a conversation-ender.

One link to rule them all: If a target is persistently trolled by one person or on a specific point, they should create a single link online that they control where they can respond. For instance, several scientists created a helpful FAQ on RealClimate.org when their paleoclimate research was attacked. Similarly, check out Frank Ackerman’s responses to Richard Tol, a notoriously nasty economist who publicly attacks other academics with whom he disagrees.

These one-link resources ensure that targets are able to respond on their own terms and it spares them from having to play whack-a-mole in multiple venues to knock down bad claims. It also creates a link of record that a target can share with reasonable people, including journalists, in response to troll attacks in other venues. 

Further, if a troll responds on a site a target controls, the target can actually debunk the troll’s points one-by-one, such as through embedded commentary. Doing so destroys a troll’s ability to obfuscate and Gish Gallop. Finally, such resources are also useful for exposing things a troll might be doing privately, such as emailing a target’s supervisor or spreading false information about them in person.

Brush your shoulders off, do something constructive instead

Trolls are depressing as hell. And kind of weird. Unfortunately, when trolls succeed, they drag other people down to their level.

It’s not only wrong but simply counterproductive to let trolls influence people’s actions, beliefs, or the frames with which they approach issues. For instance, I was once working with a peer on an online science communication presentation. She was worried about what an academic blogger might say in response to our event since the blogger had targeted her for criticism before. As we discussed the pros and cons of going ahead with the presentation, I realized that there are two types of people who do public communication around science: constructive people and destructive people.

We were trying to do something constructive for an audience of scientists eager to learn about communication. This blogger was attempting to do something destructive instead, tearing other people down in the service of his agenda. We went ahead with the presentation and it was very successful.

Effective science communication: 1 Troll: 0.

So when I hear scientists and science communicators talking about their trolls, I always wonder: what the heck would they be talking about instead if not for these trolly trolly trolls? Probably science! Or they’d be talking to other people who have their ears and eyes open.

I’d like to see science communicators find way to respond to trolls constructively. That largely requires recognizing that we can’t do anything to change the trolls themselves. They’re just out there trolling. Instead, I think we should use trolling as a trigger to do something constructive.

Consider this…What if every time a scientist or science communicator were trolled they:

  • Reached out to an old colleague they haven’t heard from in a while.
  • Posted something interesting about their field on social media.
  • Sent a journalist a note about forthcoming research.
  • Emailed their scientific society to ask about upcoming public outreach opportunities.
  • Went for a nice walk outside.

All of these are way better uses of our time than worrying about the trolls. (Also see a few more ideas below, including my inspiration for the above response.)

It’s like Taylor Swift says: haters gonna hate. You just have to shake it off.

Yes, I have cited Taylor Swift at a scientific conference.

A big note on gender

I’m from New Jersey. And my friends once gave me a robot-related nickname. So it’s probably a little bit easier for me to let trolling roll of my back than it is for other folks.

I’m also a dude. And I hope it’s fair to say that our society generally raises women to care more about other people’s opinions, including strangers, and puts the burden on women to make other people around them feel happy. As a result, it’s been my experience that men are more likely to blame trolls for trolling while women are much more likely to wonder what they could have done differently to avoid getting trolled. At the same time, trolling behavior directed at women is also a lot nastier than trolling behavior directed at men. That’s because sexist-bro dude-trolls feel threatened when they see women in positions of power, including in journalism, communications and science.

These trolling behaviors are closely related to sexual harassment, too. Harassers should obviously face scrutiny and punishment and it’s good to see scientific institutions finally,  haltingly start to deal with endemic sexual harassment. But when such harassment takes place online and is anonymous, it’s hard for women who are targeted by it – and other people who see it – to know what to do beyond reporting it as abusive behavior.

That’s why I’m so grateful to have read about an idea from biology student and Wikipedian Emily Temple-Wood. She creates a new woman-in-science Wikipedia entry when she faces online harassment. What a stupendously great way to respond! I love it. (And that’s exactly what got me thinking about other proactive ways to respond to trolls, as described above.)

You can contribute to the project here. I’ve done so a few times now in response to sexist comments I’ve seen directed at female peers. It feels great to be able to respond to something depressing and destructive and turn it into something awesome and constructive instead. Woohoo!

I’d strongly encourage others to contribute to this project or ones like it any time they see someone getting trolled, but especially when they see sexist trolling.

Always be proactive

Well, that was a long discussion about trolls, wasn’t it? I’m glad you made it this far and I hope this was useful. If there’s a TL;DR for this post it’s this: never let the trolls drag you down and always be proactive with your public communication.

Update (4/18/16 ): This post has been translated into Italian by CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences. Grazie!

Continue reading

Neil Tyson: Let a Biologist Borrow Your Twitter Keys for a Day

Neil deGrasse Tyson is pretty darn cool. He’s an incredible science communicator and one of just a few scientists who have achieved celebrity status. He proactively educates people through lectures, documentaries and writing and he also issues occasional correctives on scientific topics to the media, Hollywood and politicians.

Of course, nobody has a perfect track record when it comes to science communication and every once in a while Tyson does get something wrong, including when he tweets to his 5 million followers.

In those moments, other scientists jump on Tyson’s messages, as we should expect from critical, skeptical researchers who care deeply about accuracy.

For instance, earlier this month, Tyson sent out a confusing tweet about evolution and how animals experience pain during sex. Many biologists and science writers were left scratching their heads. Tyson followed up with a link to biologist and writer Emily Willingham’s response, which was quite good. But his original tweet was shared 2,300 times while the follow-up was shared only 187 times. Unfortunately, that disparity in attention is pretty standard for correctives issued on social media.

Yesterday, Tyson rankled his poor beleaguered peers in biology again with a tweet about bats being “blind,” something biologists who work with those animals would call a big misconception.

Maybe this will all blow over, but biologists and science writers are surely scrutinizing Tyson’s 140-character messages a bit more than they would otherwise. Indeed, many biologists have taken to making up their own parody biology facts as seen through lens of an astronomer.

I have to wonder: will chemists, agronomists and engineers be next?  People who closely follow science are always wary when experts in one discipline start publicly talking about topics on which they don’t have formal training or a track record of peer-reviewed publication.

This led me to a thought about something neat and constructive Tyson could do in response to this recent flap. He should hand the keys to his Twitter account over to a biologist for a day.

How cool would that be? Tyson could use the powerful platform he’s built as an astronomer to highlight someone from another discipline for a day. That person would be able to introduce themselves to a very large audience, share a few compelling messages about their work, and walk away from the experience with more followers themselves. They might also learn that having 5 million followers means seeing in real-time that you can’t make everyone happy!

Heck, maybe this is something Tyson could do once a month, highlighting researchers from different disciplines throughout the year. It’d be a great benefit to the scientific community, a nice gesture from a leading scientist who commands such a large audience, and a project that could underscore the many different ways science touches our lives.

Finally, if you want to see some purely rotating science accounts in action, Real Scientists and I Am Scicomm are well worth following.

Continue reading