I’ve written before about what to do when a journalist gets something wrong. But what about when a researcher or an institution is the one at fault? Mistakes happen, after all, from transposed figures to inaccurate press releases to the research itself getting corrected or – oof – retracted.
In such cases, science communicators should be transparent, thorough and quick to respond. It’s the right thing to do and copping to mistakes and working with journalists to correct them can actually enhance a source’s credibility over the long haul.
As a long-time NASA media staffer and former journalist once told me, when he has bad news, he wants to be the one to tell it. I think that maxim holds true for corrections. If someone else catches a mistake and starts complaining about it to journalists via comments, emails or on Twitter, a science communicator might feel like they’re on the defensive. A failure to respond quickly can even look suspicious to journalists.
When someone finds a mistake, science communicators should let journalists know as quickly as possible so they can correct it. Check to see if news aggregators and bloggers picked up the same mistake and contact them, too. Be thorough. Don’t leave a journalist out and put them in the position of having to explain to an editor why another outlet issued a correction and they didn’t.
In some cases, a mistake might warrant a more thorough review. Perhaps a key researcher got left off the press release approval email chain and now they’re going through it with a fine-toothed comb. If that’s going to take a while, it’s worth letting journalists know what’s been found so far while giving them a time by which you expect to have a fuller assessment.
It may be the case that only some of the journalists who covered a story conveyed the incorrect information. Communications staffers in damage-control mode may be tempted to just contact them and avoid having to tell other journalists who dodged the bullet that something went wrong. Don’t do it! Contact everyone who covered the story or expressed interest in it. If it looks like a journalist doesn’t need to update their story, let them know they’re probably in the clear up front: “I don’t think your reporting reflected this error or was based on it in any substantive way, but I wanted to let you know…”
If an institution blasted out a press release with an inaccuracy, they should also send a corrective note. Yes, it sucks! But they should do it anyway. Science communicators have to hold themselves to a very high standard.
This can be a messy process, for sure, but given how rapidly news spreads online and how quickly mistakes can get propagated through secondary and tertiary sources – especially partisan ones – it’s worth the effort.
People have very different reactions when it’s time to correcting errors. It’s worth taking the time now – not when people are panicked about a potentially embarrassing or simply annoying error – to come up with a process for responding.
Assign a lead and backup in the communications team to handle corrections. Have a similar plan for how the scientific team should be engaged. Ask executives to lay out a process for when they should get a heads up and when they need to be at the table for decision-making. In short: have a plan now so the team doesn’t have to waste precious time figuring out who needs to be on a conference call or an email chain in the moment.
Everyone at an institution should agree on principles of transparency, thoroughness and speed in advance of an error. When a real correction comes along, that’ll make it easier for everyone to focus on upholding those principles rather than pointing fingers.
The truth is that corrections can hurt. Some people will react with initial denial. Our brains beg us to explain away mistakes instead of copping to them. Others may want to rush to correct the record, imagining worst-case scenarios and ruined relationships with reporters. Still others may use a correction to undermine someone internally or even try to throw them under the bus to a reporter (yuck!). More commonly, a junior staffer may find a mistake that obviously came from a superior who has sway over their placement and salary, so they hesitate to bring it up.
In science communication, everyone should feel like surfacing and responsibly correcting errors is an important, if unpleasant, part of their jobs.
Along with having a ready plan with your team, it’s important to have a consistent policy for issuing corrections on an organization’s website. Consider posting a correction policy for public consumption. It’s worth being transparent.
Many media outlets, of course, are grappling with the same issues. Slate was an early adopter among news sites for using the limitless publishing format of the web to make corrections not only more transparent, but also a regular weekly feature.
Institutions do themselves a disservice when they try to bury corrections. Quietly updating web copy after a mistake has been discovered is routine. Sometimes people don’t notice. Other times they screengrab the before and after and make fun of the institution on Twitter. The Internet has a long memory and journalists have copies of original press releases in their inboxes. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. We can’t pretend it wasn’t.
So what to do? Annotations, strikethroughs and footnotes with anchor tags are my preferred method for issuing – and consuming – corrections. They allow the reader to see what was there originally and what changed and why. In extreme cases, where multiple corrections are required, it may be worth creating a corrected copy and an original copy to preserve readability, but for almost all other instances, these context-heavy systems are sufficient and respect the audience in a way that opaque updates do not.
I seriously hope I didn’t make any mistakes in this post, of course. But if I made an error of omission, let me know! I’d love to hear more about what works and doesn’t work when we have to – gulp – make a correction.Continue reading
Right before the Christmas break, I posted about climate scientists’ experiences combating zombie myths for Poynter. As we know, some myths seem to defy factchecking, particularly conspiracy theories. I argued that journalists (and scientists!) need to do more to illustrate the dangers of basing policymaking on misinformation:
“…fact-checking is based on the unstated premises that facts themselves matter and that reliable evidence is necessary to make sound policy. Climate denial challenges these very premises….If there is a main lesson we can draw from climate change coverage it is this: Explicitly stating the facts is not enough; we have to be clear about what happens when they lose out to lies.
Journalists are making sense of our fractured media environment and the growing prevalence of outright lies and propaganda in American political discourse. There are some parallels to how scientists have been grappling with the same trends, especially on climate change.
Here are two key points to keep in mind as we think about more effective reality-based communication.
James Fallows at the Atlantic produced some essential reading on how journalists can handle Trumpian-level lies:
Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up. Until now the idea has been that if you can show a contrast between words and actions, claim and reality, it may not bring the politician down, but it will hurt.
Explaining how that assumption is being challenged – and how dangerous it is – is a job worth taking up. It’s also worth noting that this degradation of political discourse has been happening for a long time and has recently accelerated. We’re in a different place now. For journalists like Fallows – and for scientists – “facts” are still descriptions of objective reality. For political ideologues, “facts” are fluid and one’s embrace or rejection of a set of “facts” is a marker of political identity, not one’s sober assessment of reality.
As Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump supporter, told Fallows in response to his article, “There is no such thing anymore, unfortunately, as facts.” Their radio exchange is well worth a listen. They are using the same words to argue about entirely different cultural views on what constitute a “fact” and indeed, the nature of who serves as an arbiter of accepted truths in society.
Stepping back from these philosophical debates is important, too. They can be a rabbit hole. Facts and expertise are important because they are the basis for sound public policy choices, whether its how to manage a nuclear stockpile or warning people about the dangers of smoking. Political misinformation and lies are dangerous not just because they are wrong, but because they turn into terrible public policy choices that hurt people.
For instance, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) has been clear about why he rejects climate science:
“I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.”
Trump, in a more meandering way, made a similar assertion to the NYT. They don’t embrace climate change misinformation because they are enamored of it or because they hate science – they embrace lies because it justifies the policy outcomes they want. So while factchecking their outrageously wrong claims is great, we also have to remember where the public interest rests. Ignoring climate change hurts people. Failing to plan for rising seas, extreme heat waves and droughts hurts people. Lying about climate science doesn’t reduce the harm from climate change; it’s just an excuse for kicking the can down the road and letting the problem get worse.
We don’t need an argument about why Sen. Inhofe’s misguided beliefs about climate science are wrong. We need an argument about why he isn’t protecting Oklahomans from increased climate risks.
Finally, the lies about voter fraud are perhaps even more illustrative and damning. Trump supporters now believe – thanks to lies – that millions of people, including non-citizens voted illegally. It’s worth watching this video of a CNN reporter trying to source the voter fraud claims Trump supporters have internalized. The Trump supporters don’t care. They and the reporter have entirely different views about what “facts” are in this context.
This lie and many like it will continue to be used to justify laws that rob people of their right to vote, a right mentioned more times than any other in the Constitution. If that is not a threat to democracy, I do not know what is. So journalists can factcheck these claims all they want, but it is the policy outcome based on the lie that is the most dangerous, not the mistaken beliefs.
Facts – real facts – and expertise matter. When politicians start making up their own reality, we go to very dangerous places, indeed.
2. There’s a greater need to explain why you do what you do.
Because scientists and journalists both value objectivity, they have a tendency to avoid talking about what drives them to do their work. Such public discussions, they think, are too personal and they would prefer pure focus on the work. Their professional norms encourage them to play the ball, not the player and to bristle at outside criticism.
But in contentious debates, failing to give audiences a sense of why you do what you do invites them to make their own assumptions, including negative ones. For researchers, audiences make bad assumptions about how scientists procure grant money. For journalists, audiences cry out with evidence of bias or favoritism. These attacks aren’t organic, of course. They are lies told by ideologues who find science and journalism politically inconvenient.
These lies must be fought with the truth. As media reporter Michael Calderone put it:
If journalists don’t engage in such discussions, they’re ceding the debate to those looking to vilify and delegitimize the press at a dangerous moment in history when soon-to-be-most powerful person in the world has already laid the groundwork for doing just that.
I’ve written previously about how scientists can do more to explain what motivates them. Perhaps journalists can consider some similar steps.
All of our old assumptions about institutional power and norms are being challenged. Everyone who care about facts – real facts – has to step up.Continue reading
I have been thinking these past few months of Dr. Carl Sagan. In his last interview, conducted with Charlie Rose in 1996, Dr. Sagan said the following:
We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?
This was Dr. Sagan, with all his clear-eyed skepticism brought to bear on our world. But his appeal – his moral courage, really – came from his deeper, unwavering optimism for our species. These are the first two quotes from The Demon-Haunted World, his user’s guide to scientific thinking:
Of course, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump didn’t talk much about science during their campaigns. This was not an election based on issues. But this was the first election in U.S. history where the role of expertise itself – be it scientific, academic or security-related – actually divided the candidates.
During her acceptance speech after the primaries, Clinton said she believed in science, citing climate change, in particular. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has called climate change a hoax. That statement, along with Trump’s pending withdrawal of the United States from an international climate agreement, drew unprecedented criticism from more than 375 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Further, more than 1,200 members of the scientific community echoed these concerns in another letter, citing Trump’s embrace of conspiracy theories and the alacrity with which he and his running mate made discredited claims about vaccines, evolution, and the link between smoking and lung disease. They joined many other experts in making similar statements condemning Trump and praising Clinton, including Nobel Prize winners, historians, economists and nuclear launch officers.
Trump’s rise — and his narrow victory — should make us question the degree to which expertise will continue to matter in politics. We know that it does when it’s time to make policy, but on the politics, its salience is simply low and will probably remain so. Repeated warnings from experts across disciplines and across the political spectrum fell not on deaf ears, but on deeply disengaged and distracted ones. It is tempting to blame others for this problem, including politicians who abandoned their Constitutional principles to support Trump as well as media coverage that too often balanced bigotry, threats of violence, repeated falsehoods, attacks on the democratic process itself and sexual assault with email servers. But such complaints will not change anything, certainly not history.
It is therefore up to the scientific and academic community itself to become a more powerful political constituency. As Dr. Sagan once said about our planet, help will not come from somewhere else.
What lessons do we take away from this as science communicators who care about public policy? Here are a few, which broadly apply to other experts, too.
Of course, many scientists and science communicators are already doing all this. What I am saying is that we need more. Scientists who think this is someone else’s problem need to come off the sidelines. And scientific leaders have a further responsibility to foster more leadership in our community, through mentorships, fellowship programs and the simple grace of building each other up instead of tearing each other down.
Finally, we must care for each other. We need to face great difficulty with great creativity and drive. Dr. Sagan is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on in all of us who have dedicated our careers to the sciences. As Sarah Myhre and Tessa Hill put it last year: “Be brave. There has never been a more important time to be a well-spoken member of the scientific community.
Update, 11/11 at 4PM: The American Physical Society just retracted a fawning statement about Trump’s win after members pushed back. Scientists and scientific organizations will have to choose between appeasement and opposition and it’s going to be about way more than funding.
In the Guardian, Jack Stilgore and Roger Pielke Jr. argue that scientists have to work with a Trump administration to “remain relevant” or risk jeopardizing “the constructive role that we should play in policy and politics.” This is a false choice. Scientists are already relevant to policymaking at all levels of government and opposing a Trump Administrations’ attempts to gut politically inconvenient federal science would be both a constructive and moral choice. Australian scientists faced a similar choice and they stood up for themselves and their colleagues, prompting a reversal of anti-climate-science policies from their new government.Continue reading
Update (9/13/16): This is interesting. Over at Scienceblogs.com, Greg Laden points out that many of the historic markers in the graphic fall into the trap of highlighting a story we tell ourselves about the inevitable progress of Western civilization that can be misleading. For instance, advances in agriculture and metalworking took place across multiple cultures. It’s also worth noting that some of our ancestors probably tried out agriculture and didn’t like it that much. As Laden notes, it’s still a darn good graphic, especially on the science; it’s just worth considering some of the biases we carry into these conversations, especially since the “inevitability” of burning tons of fossil fuels hangs over the climate debate quite a bit, too.Continue reading
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A basic message template would follow along these lines:
Or put in science terms:
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:
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:
These 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.)
For policy-relevant science, a slightly more complex message template adds a few more elements.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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…
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.
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!”
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Consider some of these possible goals and questions. Do you want an audience to:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This was originally written as part of a series on helping scientists effectively work with journalists. You can check out all the installments in a pay-what-you-can ebook. And, of course, there’s more to learn at the online course.
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.
This was originally written as part of a series on helping scientists effectively work with journalists. You can check out all the installments in a pay-what-you-can ebook. And, of course, there’s more to learn at the online course.
This part of the series covers what to avoid during an interview, including key strategies for answering badly framed or off-the-wall questions.