14 June 2010

Science PR... Missing the Point

A year or so ago I read a book called Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.   It was a fairly straightforward call-to-action for the community of scientists and science advocates.  It suggested the burden fell mainly on that community to develop better ways to communicate the importance and relevance of science to people outside that community.  It offered some general suggestions on doing so, such as being less antagonistic toward people of faith and finding more and better ways to blend science and pop culture.   I don't necessarily agree 100 percent with everything in the book, but it got more much more negative criticism than I thought it would.

Chris Mooney has been fairly engaged when it comes to responding to his critics, most recently the editor of a conservative publication called the New Atlantis. To me a lot of the criticism/discussion has been about issues only tangential to the most important point.   Sometimes the criticism focuses on politics - Mooney clearly doesn't shy away from partisan politics.  (BTW, I don't use the word "partisan" as a pejorative.) Sometimes it's a discussion about what's ok to say to religious people.  I recall some of the criticism even had to do with the choices the authors made to serve as examples for the book, such as the debate over the "status" of Pluto.

I boil it down like this.  There's general consensus in the science / science advocacy community that science and scientists are undervalued. There are differences of opinion on who's responsible for fixing that.  But for those who truly believe it's the responsibility of scientists and science advocates to fix it, I think there's still a huge disconnect.

I'm very hesitant to paraphrase or summarize Mooney & Kirshenbaum, because I think most of the criticism of the book really misstates what they intended to convey.  I think they want scientists to become better communicators and better writers for a lay audience.  It seems to me they want to "re-brand" science topics, making them cool or popular.  And then I see criticism from New Atlantis for using PR-like language to describe what they'd do.

Well, I'm in PR.  I've been in PR and politics (which is basically PR on steroids) for almost 20 years now.  Here's what I tell my clients - and it hasn't changed over time.  It's not terribly complicated. 
  2. Learn everything you possibly can about the people you want to influence.
  3. Have a plan for reaching people, and have a plan for when that plan doesn't work.
  4. Don't wait for people to come to you; find them.  Knock on doors.
  5. Don't expect people to suddenly think your information is important. You have to make it relevant to them.
  6. Don't expect people to use your communication tools. If people prefer telephones, don't expect them to respond to your email. 
  7. Get used to hearing "no" a lot.  Be patient.
  8. If you're not enjoying it, you're not doing it right.
I have other lists of pithy feel-good PR advice, which I'll share in later posts.

This community of scientists and their advocates are getting a lot of it right, but they're missing one really important thing.  It's what Bora is calling "push versus pull."  Chris and Sheril are finding really good people who are making themselves available to help.  They don't seem to be finding a lot of people who are willing to knock on doors.  Nobody seems to be thinking about finding the best doors to knock.

Knocking on doors is not easy; it's not convenient.  It's outside the comfort zone of most people.  But it's what must be done to change attitudes here.

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