Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To tie in with June’s event which looks at how scientists reach out of the ivory tower, communicating science to the public, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on the nature.com blogs. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they engage and reach out to the public.
David Wescott is a Director of Digital Strategy at APCO Worldwide, a global public affairs firm. He has served as a legislative assistant to a United States Senator and administrator of a Pediatrics department at a public hospital in Boston. He blogs at It’s Not a Lecture and is a contributor at Virtual Vantage Points, Science Cheerleader, Earth and Industry, The Broad Side, and Global Voices Online. He lives in Durham, NC.
Soapbox Science has hosted some outstanding writers in the #reachingoutsci series so far – after reading them I’m more optimistic than ever that scientists and science communicators will help the rest of us gain a better appreciation for what scientists do and why it’s important. Since so many people rightly identify this as a public relations problem, it makes sense to see how PR firms might look at the challenge and address it. Katie Pratt cracked the door open on this. Let’s kick it in.
Most PR professionals will tell you there are a few basic elements to any successful PR campaign. While the versions from firm to firm may vary slightly, it’s all reasonably straighforward. The good news: scientists and science writers are already very good at many of these elements. The bad news: they’ve almost completely ignored others.
It all starts with research
You will conduct a literature review when starting a new project; PR flacks do something somewhat similar. If I’m looking at a potential client, I’ll see what’s been written about them in the media and if there are any writers who keep going back to the topic. I’ll look at opinion polls related to their industry or their priority issues. I’ll look at committees and agencies and regulators of jurisdiction. I’ll try to find out if anyone is suing them. I’ll assess the reputation of top people in their company. If it’s a public company, I’ll look at the stock price and what the analysts say about it. Clearly, “research” is something this community already knows how to do; I’m not about to shed any brilliant insights on how scientists can improve here. I’ll only say that the best PR practitioners are also passionate about their research, and (like many science librarians) take real pride in knowing where to find the most relevant and useful information.
Second-rate PR firms equate “situation analysis” with “this is how my potential client describes the problem, and I’m repeating it back to them to let them know that I read their email.” In reality, the situation analysis is really a debate over the scope of the problem. While some might argue that the problem here is “scientists get no respect,” or “federal funding for basic research is declining,” from a PR perspective there isn’t much you can do with this. A more helpful situation analysis would drill down to opinion polling on a particular topic scientists want to influence more, a vote count in congress, information on consumer spending trends for a product, and so on. The more you drill down, the more successful you can be.
This is where I diverge a bit from some of my professional colleagues. Some might be telling you this is where you start defining “audiences” or “publics.” And yes, it’s critical to know everything you can about the people you want to listen to you. However, I no longer believe in the term “audience” the way my profession traditionally defined it. As most online readers know, people choose to consume only the information that fits their interests and their world view. They use digital video recorders to zip past news stories or television shows that don’t matter to them. They pull one story from the New York Times, one from their local TV station, one from their favorite blog, and – most importantly for me – something that a friend shared with them. Once they finish consuming information, many of them talk back – they comment, share, link, “like,” and so on. The bottom line for me in the age of media convergence: there’s no such thing as the “general public” anymore.
The best PR pros today spend a lot of time identifying the people who influence many others on a particular topic at a given moment. Of course I’m looking for reporters who cover a certain beat or whom other journalists follow a lot. I’m looking for legislators or regulators who chair a committee or have control over a budget, and the lobbyists and fundraisers who influence them. But today I’m also looking for consumers who are exerting their influence on peers, on brands, on politicians. Sometimes it’s a purple-haired mom in Philadelphia who cusses a lot and writes a blog called “Uppercase Woman.” Other times it’s a bespectacled smoker from Belgrade who likes to study the sleeping habits of Japanese quail. At some point, these people will play a role in a process that matters to my client.
This is where the scientific community really needs help, primarily because the goals I hear are too vague. I think if scientists start with “we want to inform the public that science is really important” – and yes, I have heard this proposed – the campaign is over before it starts. However, if we start with something like “we want young women in rural areas to feel more comfortable pursuing a career in science,” we can win that. There are dozens of these smaller-scale campaigns we could win. And I will say this – few things sway public opinion on big-picture issues as well as a winning streak.
Of course, if you forced me to come up with a PR strategy for “Big Science,” it would be to overwhelm influential people in some specific fields – politics, finance, and media to start – with messaging on the omnipresence and relevance of science. I’d demonstrate an upside to working with scientists and respecting the scientific process, and a downside to denialism or obfuscation. By “upside,” I mean more money and power. By “downside,” I mean less money and power. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s not to say you write checks to people who work with you – it’s that you enhance or erode someone’s support base depending on their position. But again, I honestly think this “big picture” strategy is somewhat fruitless in a vacuum. The smarter approach is the long term one – win 30 of the smaller battles, and the larger one will be easier to win.
This has also been a challenge for science. If I can give any advice on developing messages it’s really two things: First, realize that it’s not about you, it’s about who you’re trying to persuade. Yes, it’s important to make sure reporters “get the facts right,” but it’s even more important for influential people to hear things in terms that motivate them to act in some way. The second thing is to make sure your message resonates before you blast it out. The best PR pros never assume they know what a community wants to hear. They always test their messages through “soft soundings” with members of a specific community, focus groups, or opinion polls.
These are the activities I hear people discussing most in the sci-comm community. We talk about media training, about developing really cool videos, about writing a book and so on. After participating in these sorts of discussions for about 4 years now, I guess the discussion is 80 percent about content creation and 20 percent about actual knock-on-doors outreach. I think it should be a more even effort. Content is obviously critical. But the most compelling message in the world is almost useless if the only people hearing it are people who already agree with you.
My specialty tactic is creating diverse groups of “third party validators.” This is directly related to stakeholder mapping. It typically involves building relationships with influential stakeholders and asking them to weigh in on a process that affects my client – whether it’s writing an article, calling a congressman, endorsing a product, or anything else. The strategic part, of course, is the relationship. I don’t have much in common with purple-haired moms or Serbian science writers. But both have shown me they can influence the opinion of others in ways that I can’t. And if they show up together in support of something, it creates that “odd bedfellows” angle that decision makers notice.
This is another facet of PR that I thought scientists would embrace with passion, but it’s largely absent from the discussion. How do you know something is working? To be candid though, metrics remain difficult for PR people – especially those of us who work in social media – as well. I don’t think you measure influence by adding up the circulation numbers of the papers where your messaging appears. I don’t think you necessarily have accomplished much by racking up a ton of Facebook “likes” or a high “Klout” score. ( Especially when Lady Gaga’s “Klout” is 94 and President Obama’s is 92.) We do have surveys that measure sentiment, and we can establish a baseline. We can measure the number of people we reach or who say their minds have changed. We can certainly count Congressional or Parliamentary votes.
I hope this post might spark a discussion or two on the items we’ve ignored most – stakeholders, strategy, and metrics. I remain excited and optimistic for the future, mostly because of the amazing people I’ve met in this community and seeing first hand their passion and their desire to do this the right way.