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Seven Guidelines for Making a Newsworthy Science Press Release

Every once in a while, someone in media or communications will declare the press release is dead. But the truth is that it just keeps evolving. And if you need to send information to a whole bunch of journalists at once…well, you need to write a press release. Understanding what goes into a good science press release is critical not just for scientists who have to write one on their own, but also for scientists who need to make sure they’re on the same page as their institutional communication staffers.

So here are seven guidelines to keep in mind when writing a release. BUT first – make sure you have your main messages done. Those need to get reflected in a release as well as any other communication you’re doing.

We should also define our terms before we dive in because I often hear the terms “press release” and “statement” used interchangeably, but they are definitely two different things. A press release is about something new and is written like a news story. A “statement” is a reaction to something else happening in the news and includes a quote from a credible source. In many ways, the purpose of a press release is to advertise a possible story to a journalist. By contrast, the purpose of a statement is to give a journalist a quote they can drop into a story they are already writing.

Okay, let’s get into it!

1. Press releases are for the press, not other audiences.

It feels odd to have to say this, but press releases should be written for journalists first and foremost. Too often, I see releases loaded up with attempts to market a university, sell a product, or propagate some political spin. Journalists don’t want that kind of fluff. They need hard news, facts and figures, and quotes that help put research in context for their audience. Using a press release as a conduit for other types of communication is a recipe for having reporters ignore the message. Further, doing so dilutes journalists’ impression of a source as relevant and useful, making them less likely to respond to future releases.

So the main thing I ask when editing a press release is this: Does it help a journalist do their job? If not, it probably doesn’t belong in the release.

Of course, we often face institutional pressure to include a lot of extra information in press releases. People want to toot their own horns, promote their pet projects and put in more and more information. A good press officer will push back, reminding everyone that a press release’s main audience is journalists. Additionally, we have plenty of other outlets where we can post things that aren’t immediately relevant for journalists, including blogs and social media accounts.

2. Embargoed releases make it easier for journalists to cover new research.

If you can wait to promote your research, offering an embargoed copy of a press release and the research itself to a targeted list of reporters is the best way to go. An “embargo” simply means that the reporters agree not to publish until a set time and date, usually a few days in the future. It gives them time to plan on coverage, dig into the research, interview scientists, and, importantly, pitch editors on a story. Usually, only a subset of reporters who regularly cover a topic get an embargoed copy. And note that an embargo is not an “exclusive.” That latter term means that one and only one outlet gets the story.

The alternative – blasting something out “for immediate release” – can wind up hitting reporters’ inboxes while they’re working on something else and usually results in less coverage or no coverage at all.

Do reporters break embargoes? Very rarely, in my experience. And if they do…well, that means someone covered your story, so it’s not a totally bad thing! If anyone ever breaks an embargo – intentionally or not – you can ask them to take a story down, but you probably won’t have much luck. Instead, you’ll have to alert everyone else who has the story that the embargo has been “lifted.”

When to lift an embargo? Earlier in the day is almost always better, especially since so many news outlets produce morning newsletters. A 6AM embargo is common and some organizations even say 12AM as a way of saying, “really, any old time in the morning is fine by us.” And, of course, don’t break your own embargo by publishing the research on your site before stories hit.

3. Quotes should be quotable, meaning they can be inserted directly into news stories.

Don’t use quotes for expository purposes. Use them to say something about why the research matters, what was interesting about how it was done, or what scientists recommend in response to their research, e.g. personal recommendations for the reader of an eventual news story, policy recommendations, or avenues for future research.

For examples, here’s an unnecessary, expository quote: “The eclipse will last for about two minutes and forty seconds and will cover more than 88 percent of the sun locally.”

These are objective facts that can be conveyed on their own and attributed to a source without them reflecting someone’s perspective.

Now here’s an example of a quote a reporter would find more useful: “If you stay home, you’re still going to see a really amazing astronomical event, but the total eclipse is worth the trip.”

It helps answer an obvious question a journalist would ask: “So…is it worth it to drive to where people can see the totality?” And it’s the type of quote a local TV or radio reporter would want to use to help their audience figure out their plans for eclipse viewing.

Institutions should also be wary of loading up a release with quotes. If too many spokespeople try to get involved in a release, it can quickly turn into a wall of text and disembodied voices that just isn’t very useful for journalists. If other people want to be on call to help answer inquiries, great, but adding too many additional voices to a release just makes it harder for journalists to sift through it and find the information they need. And in a lot of cases, journalists are only going to quote one person from an organization, anyway.

Finally, reporters are almost never going to use fluff quotes in which one speaker thanks someone else for funding or their hard work or partnerships. Unless the contribution someone made is truly newsworthy to someone outside an institution, save those quotes for a blog post or social media.

4. Subject lines and headlines need to grab the reader.

Journalists’ inboxes and newsfeeds are full of press releases. What gets a journalist to open an email? A subject line and headline that feels timely, interesting and relevant to their beat. (And, although this should go without saying, the research has to actually back up the headline!)

So a good headline for a study might be: “New study finds NYC subways could face more Sandy-like flooding.”

It’s new! It’s local. It gives the reader the most striking finding right away. Heck yeah, they’re opening that. Doubly so if they’re a local reporter in New York City. A TV or radio reporter who doesn’t cover science stories often might even pick up on that given local interest in the subway system.

A less compelling headline would be: “Researchers find coastal flooding growing more extreme.” This is more generic and doesn’t tell the reader anything unique about the research. Importantly, it’s missing what’s new! A beat reporter who covers science and coastal regions might be interested, but the TV or radio reporter is not going to notice it.

Of course, a big study about coastal flooding might have lots of compelling findings for different locations, which brings me to my next point…

5. Make modular releases.

It’s more work, but modular releases can really pay off. If a scientific study has findings related to all 50 states, it can be worth doing 50 versions of a release, or at least version for where findings are of possible significant interest. Similarly, changing up releases based on beat can be useful. A press release about a medical device might be of interest to a policy beat reporter, a consumer reporter and a business reporter. They’ll each be looking for a different angle and might even benefit from different headlines, different lead paragraph, and different lead quotes.

Of course, that all takes more time. And there’s no way around it, good media relations work is definitely time consuming.

6. Give reporters everything they need to do a story.

Press releases should have email addresses, phone numbers and relevant handles for a press officer and / or lead researcher, not just a generic contact. Importantly, releases should have a link to where the press release lives or will live online – this is critical for making news easy to share on social media, especially for journalists who may be interested, but can’t do a whole story.

Press releases should end with “boilerplate,” giving journalists additional information about a researcher, lab, or institution, including relevant links to sites and social accounts that may be useful to their work.

The news is also increasingly visual. If there are any relevant images, charts or even videos from a study, it’s good to put them online and link to them in a release. Even if there aren’t visuals to draw from, consider generating an image with a few key takeaways about the research that’s sized for Facebook and Twitter. Journalists can share those images while appending their own commentary and reporting.

7. Set your expectations and put in the work necessary to achieve them.

Journalists are understandably weary of PR people sending them irrelevant press releases and myriad follow ups. Over the years, I’ve seen the efficacy of blasting out press releases to big lists of journalists plummet. Strong results come from newsworthy, targeted pitches that are based on understanding a reporter’s beat, their outlet’s audience and their interest in a given topic. And that, of course, requires time and people power. The bottom line is that the more widely a researcher or organization wants to get coverage, the more work they need to put into making that happen.

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More and More Scientists are Ready for Political Action

This is such an exciting time for science communication. In my ten years working in this field, I’ve never seen such an outpouring of interest for engaging with policymakers and taking political action from American scientists.

Last week, I was happy to march with 500 Women Scientists and was even happier to hear other marchers yell, “Yay science!” as they saw fellow marchers in lab coats walking by.

500 Women Scientists preparing to march outside the Air and Space museum. Photo by @this_life.

I also wrote an op-ed for ArsTechnia about why more scientists should run for public office. 314 Action, which is taking the lead on this work, has more than 400 researchers who say they’re ready to take the ultimate public engagement step and run. (I’ve pointed my site RunForScience.org their way and look forward to working with them!)

And then there’s the Scientists’ March on Washington, which just went viral overnight. Wow! This is really happening. I love it.

It’s also interesting to think back to my time working in science policy during the George W. Bush administration. It’s slightly hard to remember, but that was before Twitter became such an important conduit for the science and political press. Back then, leaks and alternative means of speaking out were a bit more cumbersome. Today, in response to the Trump administration putting a freeze on agency Twitter accounts, more than 40 “alternative” science agency accounts have popped up. And memos about new agency policies are showing up on sites as far-ranging as Gizmodo and the Washington Post.

You can delete a Tweet, but you can’t delete the truth. 

As disappointing as the election results surely were for many of us in the scientific community, it’s heartening to see researchers respond with grace, humor, and a deeper commitment to public service.

Of course, some scientists will say that political advocacy or action aren’t warranted or that scientists should stay out of politics. They’re free to think that, of course, but politics has way of failing to stay out of science and scientists’ attitudes toward advocacy are on a spectrum, from scientists that keep their heads down all the way to researchers like Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who run for public office.

What we’re seeing right now is massive growth in the number of scientists who are finding that advocacy and political action aren’t just optional – they’re necessary to ensure that science and democracy continue to flourish.

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Science and Politics Post-Election: Where Do We Go From Here? Lessons from Carl Sagan

 

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:

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Carl Sagan testifying before Congress regarding nuclear winter.

Carl Sagan testifying before Congress regarding nuclear winter.

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.

  1. While people still appreciate and respect the work that scientists do, the scientific enterprise itself is far removed from most peoples’ day-to-day experiences. We need to continue to communicate about the value research brings to people’s lives with an emphasis on memorable, accurate stories and well-tested messages, repeated often, from a variety credible sources. This must also include helping people understand why scientists do what they do, be it curiosity, a sense of service, or excitement at the prospect of finding something new.
  2. We live in increasingly cloistered information bubbles thanks to the algorithmic mirror of social media and demographic sorting. That makes it easier for conspiracy theories to spread and for serial fabricators like president-elect Trump to lie without political consequence. Social scientists, science communicators, social media companies, and mainstream media fact checkers must dedicate themselves to figuring out how they can debunk and prevent the spread of conspiracy theories in the future, lest they take permanent hold as a basis for governance.
  1. We must support, protect and defend scientists at public agencies, especially federal agencies. Environmental scientists, in particular, are going to see their budgets cut and their free speech rights squashed by political appointees, especially their right to speak to journalists. Organizations such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I worked for many years, are well-positioned to do so.
  1. Scientists should engage more personally and deeply at the community level and with the stakeholders who use their scientific research. And they should explore how they can collaboratively create science that serves their communities. We must combine citizen science with scientific citizenship.
  1. More scientists should run for and win elected office. Holding scientists and expertise in high esteem was an integral part of the post-war political order in the United States. That political order is dead. Scientists can no longer rely on many of our political systems and institutions to be responsive to the weight of evidence, especially on contentious issues. Instead, scientists must earn their place at the decision-making table the same way everyone else does, by organizing and participating in our vibrant, contentious, messy democratic process. Scientists will only be listened to when they build and wield power, both on their own or through allies. This isn’t just about the small number of scientists in Congress, either; we must look to scientists to become more engaged members of their local communities, serving on boards and councils, on committees and in state legislatures.

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.

MyhreHillBeBraveBackground

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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Why XKCD’s Earth Temperature Timeline is Such a Good Online Graphic

Randall Munroe of XKCD has produced another creative visual representation of climate data. I made a quick video walkthrough of what it does well, including:

  • Flipping the axis and taking advantage of a purely online data representation.
  • Defying the audience’s expectations by scrolling down to go forward in time instead of going from left to right.
  • Emphasizing just how stable our climate has been over the millennia before modern, industrially-driven climate change started dominating the system.
  • Nice integration of an important footnote.
  • Representing climate choices at the end by focusing on varying emissions pathways and how far they take us off this relatively stable path we’ve been on for so long as a species.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Responding to Science News Coverage: From Corrections to Celebration

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.

 

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Four Things Scientists Should Watch Out for During Media Interviews

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.

 

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Five Ways Scientists Can Conduct More Effective Interviews

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, 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.

 

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What Scientists and Science Communicators Should Consider Before an Interview

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.

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.

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