20 January 2015

Science communication in 2015: adapt or die, part 2

"Clarity" is the mantra for many science communicators.  Science must be made clear to the masses.

Clarity is also the greatest challenge for the field as a whole - not clarity of content, but clarity of goals and metrics.  In other words, we know what science communication is, but we can't clearly articulate why we do it - and we have absolutely no idea if we're doing it right.  This is the source of so much frustration among many science communicators.

First, let's be clear about something: if your primary interest is simply writing great science articles, you already know your audience.  It's you.  There's clearly nothing wrong with this, but this blog post isn't about you.  Here, go read about radio waves in space or something.

If your goal is to communicate science for a reason beyond enjoyment there are some things to keep in mind:

1. Know your audience.  This is the first rule of communication. Identify who you want to reach, and be as specific as possible about it.  The more specifically you define your audience, the more likely you are to know how to influence it.  Too many science communicators think "the public" is an audience.   It's usually not.  Maybe your real audience is state legislators in North Carolina who criminalized sea level rise, or moms who have questions about GMO's, or farmers who see antibiotics as the difference between a profit and a loss.

2. If you have a reason, you should have a goal.  The easiest way to know if you've influenced an audience is to ask it to do something - and this is where goals and metrics become real.   If your goal is "soft," such as general awareness or information, ask your readers to share your article, and count the number of social shares.  If your goal is policy oriented, put a link in your piece to the email address of a policy maker and count the number of outclicks.  If your goal is giving parents the information they need to make smart decisions for feeding their families, put together an infographic or a .pdf fact sheet and count the number of times it is downloaded.

3. Replicate the results.  Keep track of how many times your audience did what you asked of it, and the approach you took.  Learn from it.  Try different methods.  If this sounds familiar to scientists... well, that's kind of the point.

30 December 2014

Science communication in 2015: adapt or die, Part 1

Scientific American recently made some changes to its blog network that many people saw coming.  A number of blogs were removed and some added. While some cancellations raised some eyebrows, many of the discontinued blogs were either dormant or not drawing enough traffic to justify the spot.  What struck me most, however, was this statement from the editors:
people expect a higher level of accuracy, integrity, transparency and quality from media organizations...
Actually, no.  The way people consume information - and the way people view credibility - has evolved, and the number of credible experts moving to blogs and social media has increased dramatically over the past few years.  SCOTUSblog has consistently operated at a higher level than any "brand name" media outlet covering the Supreme Court.  If the topic is sports, it's easier to question the motives of the reporter whose salary is drawn almost directly from the sports league he covers than it is the kid who reports trades on Twitter before they're announced.

It has become fashionable for many in the science communication ecosphere to criticize Scientific American (and their parent company, Nature Publishing Group) as stodgy and out of touch.  So when Scientific American applies the rules of "Branding 101" and removes those blogs that don't align closest to their core offering, some rightly suggest they also risk limiting their reach.

This doesn't mean, however, that SciAm has written off growing its readership.  In fact, the blog network still offers a great opportunity to do just that - if they take the right actions.

For example, they can provide meaningful financial incentives to their bloggers to grow and diversify their audience - and bring those readers in from their blogs to the main site. They can actively market their bloggers as thought leaders to other outlets. They can provide media and outreach training to their bloggers.  They can forge partnerships with unlikely allies that would love targeted content - online portals dedicated to other topics.  My guess is they're already considering a lot of this.  

If Scientific American (or another major name in science writing) demonstrates leadership with this, they can help address a desperate need.

Science communication is critically linked to support for science itself.  Right now support for "science" is soft.  People generally like it, but not enough to push back when it contradicts someone's ideology or business interests.  This makes it easier to cut public funding for science, build marketing plans based on ignorance, or deny science altogether.

If science is to win the day on policy and business decisions, scientists and science communicators must resist looking inward so much and start exploring and getting to know other audiences. They must stop complaining about what isn't possible and start doing what is. 

In short, they must embrace a new sense of entrepreneurship, a willingness to work with new partners under new (yet fair) rules, and a passion for growing and knowing an audience as much as possible.

In the coming days and weeks I will be discussing these ideas in more detail, and I welcome input of all kinds.

01 December 2014

Ferguson: communication and credibility

2011 Stanley Cup Finals
Sometimes it's important to listen before jumping to conclusions about important issues - to let things play out a little bit, get some facts, and share some insights that maybe haven't been shared.  That's what I've tried to do with what has happened in Ferguson.

I've built a career in politics and communications, and I understand crisis management.  I know how political systems are set up and how some people can leverage that system to evade or deflect accountability, especially in a crisis.  I understand what builds and what destroys credibility with an audience.
As far as the system is concerned, we can all see the obvious.  Darren Wilson was Michael Brown's judge, jury and executioner. As far as the system is concerned, the only thing that truly matters is if Darren Wilson was "reasonably" scared, and it's his word against a corpse.  This is true because Darren Wilson's allies removed the remaining safeguards in the system that could have challenged the notion he was scared.

Darren Wilson's co-workers on the police force allowed him to handle evidence before it was processed.  They let him wash his hands twice before testing them for anything such as another person's blood or gunshot residue.   They didn't take the required pictures at the crime scene, despite letting Michael Brown's dead body lay uncovered in the street for four and a half hours.

Prosecutors let Wilson's statements to a grand jury go unchallenged, while eyewitness accounts received repeated scrutiny.  They even misinformed the grand jury on applicable law.  The people who specialize in collecting evidence and grilling suspects instead chose to destroy evidence and grill witnesses. They gave Darren Wilson the benefit of every doubt, even if it meant breaking their own rules to do so.

I can understand the desire to protect one of your own.  But these seem to me like the actions of people who feel no accountability to the people they're sworn to serve.
2014 World Series

The prosecutor's statement - given at night for some ridiculous and irresponsible reason - was beyond tone deaf.  It was the culmination of a cynical, even spiteful exercise in political cover. Any PR flack or political hack can see this.

The mayor's press conference the next day - ostensibly to announce an update in Darren Wilson's employment status - was instead an opportunity for the mayor to complain the Governor hadn't acted quickly enough to bring in more resources from the National Guard.  When it came to addressing the concerns of residents, the mayor quickly faded to the background and brought in a parade of African-American clergy.  The mayor offered no updates on Wilson.

This follows the sustained cowardice and dishonesty from Ferguson's police chief, who cited non-existent FOIA requests to conduct a character assassination, let his officers arrest and detain journalists in violation of the law, and seemed to confuse a St. Louis suburb with a war zone.

2014 Keene NH Pumpkin Festival
As rubber bullets and tear gas canisters were fired into crowds of unarmed demonstrators and as reporters were taken away from the scene by force, Ferguson's leaders were nowhere to be found.

The mayor, police chief, and prosecutor act as though they are fully aware they have no credibility with residents, and they really don't care.

After all, the people of Ferguson do nothing to hold them accountable.  They don't vote. Sadly, many of the people who have spoken out loudest in support of Darren Wilson are also largely behind the efforts to pass "voter ID" laws that would make it harder for the people of Ferguson to vote.  These proposed laws are supposedly designed to fix a non-existent problem in the United States: voter fraud. (Other things that don't exist: Darren Wilson's broken eyesocket.)

Crisis communications professionals are trained to see the opportunity in every crisis and lay out a plan of action to improve an organization or person's standing with an audience.   If you consider the residents of Ferguson to be the key audience here, consider this an opportunity wasted.

As for whether the situation in Ferguson is about a larger issue of race in America, just listen to Jay Smooth.