23 August 2010

My Free PR Advice to Scientists: It's Not Just About Media Training

I've been reading a lot of smart stuff from Chris Mooney  and I think it's great that he and others are working diligently to "media train" scientists.  Communication skills are obviously critical if scientists want to demonstrate the relevance and importance of their research, or if they want to position themselves as a valuable resource for the media as stories develop.  I hope Chris does more of it and I hope it goes well.

But here's the simple truth: "Big Science" is losing too many of the battles that really matter, and if all scientists do is learn how to speak in sound bites and wear the right color shirt on camera, it's only going to get worse.  I'm not just talking about the back-and-forth debates about climate change or evolution or the latest miracle cure for whatever.  I'm talking about the fact that science is marginalized or even condemned by people who make decisions for all of us.

I'm talking about Governor Bobby Jindal thumbing his nose at sound science and actually making things worse in the Gulf of Mexico - yet being lauded as some kind of hero by pundits who don't know any better.  I'm talking about the continued muzzling of scientists by government officials - you know, the people who claim they just don't want to release science that hasn't been peer reviewed yet and then go ahead and release non-reviewed reports that say everything's pretty awesome. (It's not.)  I'm talking about a Congress that firmly believes math is something for the other guy to worry about.  (Yes, I know Chris already wrote a book about this.)

I wrote about this last month:
Here's the sad, simple truth: Scientists are marginalized in politics and the media because there's no downside to marginalizing them.  The community is loosely organized at best from a political / PR standpoint - despite the multitudes of organizations within the community.  There is no groundswell of support, no army of activists ready to go at a moment's notice. Worse still, there's no real agreement among scientists how to address this - or even if they should...
 Critics of science (you know, like some national groups with the word "family" in their name) consistently kick scientists' asses in PR and politics not because they're made of money but because they have a plan and they stick to it.  They learn as much as they can about the pool of persuadable people and the pressure points of people in power.  They test messages relentlessly with focus groups and polling.  They identify speakers and develop talking points and pitch stories to reporters.  They recruit allies.  They don't expect to "win" in a day, or a week, or a month - but they have specific benchmarks and timelines.  They have specific actions they ask people to take at specific times - typically in advance of milestones in a court case or a political campaign or the legislative calendar. They build databases of supporters and they stay in contact with them.  They constantly work to build relationships beyond their own, cloistered community - so when the time comes to build a coalition of support around an issue they're not introducing themselves by asking for something.
Bottom line: there's nothing even close to this from scientists or their "allies."  Nothing.  Instead there's mockery or infighting or indifference.
I'll say it again: There is no plan.  There is no leader.  There is no coordinated effort to assertively place the other side on the defensive.  Scientists and their allies are "fighting back," and rather feebly at that; they should be striking first.  A handful of leaders should be thinking about what they want, who they should influence (and how) to get what they want, and what they'll do to make sure their adversaries' strategies implode.

I would cherish the opportunity to get together with a handful of scientists/bloggers/writers who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore.  Any takers?

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