Soapbox Science

The Audience You Don’t Know

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.

The hardest part of science outreach is not crafting a story.  It’s not getting “media trained” to appear on radio or television.  It’s not researching the intricacies of neurobiology or the techniques of persuasion.  It’s not even applying for a grant.

The hardest part of science outreach is getting started.

As many Soapbox Science readers know, this year’s ScienceOnline North Carolina conference featured some outreach-focused panels. I even co-moderated one of them.  But even though we tried to talk in depth about the strategies and tactics of outreach, we kept going back to discussing content.  It just seemed like a more comfortable topic.  Even engaging outside the sci-comm community was often described in terms of talking with “people you already know.”

Outreach is inherently uncomfortable. It involves talking with unfamiliar people and introducing a topic they don’t always see as relevant to their lives.  Even the most extroverted people often find outreach difficult.  And let’s face it – this community isn’t exactly suffering from a glut of extroverts. People are only willing to go so far outside of their comfort zone.

So maybe it’s time to make outreach a little more comfortable by introducing some of the people that science writers should know, but largely don’t right now – brilliant, entrepreneurial, influential and passionate people, whose only apparent flaw is a lack of sustained interest in topics like duck sex or the Higgs boson. Maybe it’s time to read a lot of what they’ve written and see what we have in common before we worry about how we could hook them on the duck sex stuff. Maybe it’s time to go back to communication 101 and remember the most important thing is knowing your audience, and a new audience requires a new commitment to listening and learning.

Here’s a short list of people that some in the PR field may consider emerging leaders in new media (There are obviously more than I can count; if you want more suggestions try here). They may never be household names, but they already influence important people in their own communities and beyond.  My PR advice to science writers: read up on these folks, develop a healthy respect for their accomplishments and think about how and what you write is relevant to what they do.

  • Karen Walrond is wildly convinced that you’re uncommonly beautiful, and she will say so to your face. She’s the author of The Beauty of Different, a fabulous compilation of some of her best photographs and essays. In addition to being an outstanding photographer and writer, Karen is a speaker, a lawyer, a civil engineer, and a global advocate for moms. When her friends talk about her, they do so with reverence.  Karen isn’t just smart, she’s wise.  She helps others find their own beauty.   As for science, it doesn’t seem to be a frequent topic of discussion for her, though she did take exception to an evolutionary psychologist’s controversial assertions about race and physical attractiveness among women.
  • Carolina Valencia is a modern female role model.  She’s the director of social media at Univsion, the leading media company serving Hispanic America. She’s a frequent speaker at a variety of events and conferences. Few people know what makes a compelling news story better than she does – that’s because she once worked in media relations for the New York Times, pitching their stories to other media outlets and trying to book television and radio spots for Times reporters to discuss their recent work (You think it’s easy?  YOU try pitching what is LITERALLY yesterday’s news to a breaking news outlet). Her Tumblr demonstrates a variety of interests – media, politics, culture, history, and of course what’s airing on Univision.  If science writers want to be relevant to news consumers tomorrow, they should be looking at Carolina Valencia today – diverse, multilingual, adept at curation, and appreciative of multimedia.
  • Liz Gumbinner.  Liz is a successful writer, entrepreneur, and advertising executive.  She’s also a loving mom to two great daughters.  You may have seen her in Parents Magazine, The Today Show, HLN, CBS The Early Show, The Martha Stewart Show, and so on.  Liz is a leader in her profession and among her friends and partners in social media because she’s creative, smart, passionate and driven.  She’s had a lot of smart things to say lately about hot-button cultural issues and stays true to herself in everything she does.  Liz doesn’t talk a lot about science when she’s talking with, say, Katie Couric, but that’s not because she isn’t interested in it or finds it too complicated.  Liz talks about the things she thinks are relative to her life and to her daughters’ lives.  To gain her attention, you should do what she does for her advertising clients – tell her a great story.


  1. Report this comment

    Allison Stelling said:

    1) Thank you kindly for breaking up the text.

    2) When I was a girl, I went to high school in Seattle. Now, Seattle has this interesting institution called The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. I worked there, in a genetics lab, from age 15 to when I left town for college. The Hutch, as us natives call it, has an even more interesting program called the Science Education Partnership (SEP,

    SEP’s mission is to increase the community’s understanding of genetics research by loaning “kits” out to high schools all over WA state. These kits were assembled from the left-over lab equipment from the gene labs- like old DNA electrophoresis runners that were being replaced with the latest model. Nancy, the gal in charge, works with lab scientists to design experiments that high school students can do to gain a greater appreciation of genetics research.

    I do intra-operative tumor diagnostics now, and work with lasers. I was lured from genetics by the siren call of quantum mechanics. However, the experience I had with hands-on experimental science as a girl was invaluable, and to this day is useful for helping me talk to neurosurgeons and pathologists for developing novel optical diagnostic methods.

    Science doesn’t just need cheerleaders- it needs people who have actually done science! It needs an educated populace willing to support its researchers, and understand a little bit about what they do for a living!

    Seattle is a unique city in the USA- its population truly cares about the scientific education of its children and the support of its scientists. I am in Durham NC right now. While I do see excellent research going on, I also see a population of scientists divorced from their local environment- a state hardly unique to university towns in my nation. Education is difficult and time consuming. However the attitude of “those who can’t do, teach” is damaging my nation’s scientific potential. I prefer to say: “the best way to learn is to teach”!

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