This post is an excerpt taken from my upcoming online training resource: Science Communication Best Practices. It is based on work I completed in a MITACS supported Canadian Science Policy Fellowship with Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Not My Job: Why Scientists Should Also be Communicators
As a scientist, you may feel as though you have your hands full conducting your science, and that it is other peoples’ jobs to communicate about it. After all, your department, university or lab already has communication personnel, so why can’t they do it?
We’ve heard this comment before, and even though professional communicators possess a lot of knowledge about communication, there are very good reasons why every scientist should learn to communicate about their work. For example, studies have shown that people are less likely to trust information they receive about climate science if that information is shared by politicians or professional communicators, however, people will be more likely to trust the same information if it is shared by scientists themselves.
This blog post by Scientific American gives some compelling reasons why scientists should talk directly with the public, rather than going through intermediaries. It highlights the ways that the passion that scientists have for their work can inspire others, and gives resources for those people interested in becoming better science communicators. Furthermore, most scientists, including government scientists, are in roles that are mandated to serve the public. Public service means communicating your findings to others in ways that are accessible to everyone.
Nobody understands your topic better than you do. You have spent years devoted to every nuance of your area of study. This means that a professional communicator can not do your topic justice the way you can. If they get questions for additional details, they may not be able to provide the best answer. On the other hand, you are able to provide responses to many possible questions because you know your topic so well. By taking the time to communicate your science directly, you are ensuring that people get access to the best information possible, because it comes from you.
Information alone is not enough to change behavior. As the image above shows, if people have good reason to behave a certain way (in this case to cut the corner across a grassy lawn rather than taking a purpose built path on the sidewalk), they will keep behaving in that way, even if told otherwise (please use sidewalk).
Over two years, we took a deliberate approach grounded in best practices in social media strategy. We attempted to build a network of interested followers friends, we engaged in reciprocity, sharing the posts produced by others, and we deliberately used engaging visuals, narratives, and accessible language in our posting. Furthermore, we ensured that we were posting to social media platforms on a regular schedule, and posting according to the times that were most appropriate for each platform. Finally, we tailored our content to suit different platforms. Longer posts and videos for facebook, short bite-sized content and retweets with images on Twitter, Strong images and short videos on Instagram, and longer videos with animations on YouTube. Every approach we followed was well known in the social media marketing world, but interestingly was not broadly used in science or sustainability communication. Instead, these communication domains tend to rely primarily on a more just the facts style communication with an academic presentation and tone.
Despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about fake news, biased journalism, and journalists as “very bad people“, the very people complaining the loudest about the press seem to be those who are most adept at manipulating it. Take for example, the current President of the United States, who employs a combination of direct to consumer social media tactics, and also maintains strong relationships with non-professiona,l we-cannot-really-call-them (cough cough) news organizations like infowars, in order to perform the idea of news while supplanting the actual purpose entirely.
Digital communication and PR professionals recognize a few truisms about online communication:
Strong emotions get shared more often on social media.
People tend to share things they really strongly agree or disagree with.
Google and Facebook tend to tailor or curate your feeds, giving you more of the stuff you already like, because that’s what we tend to view as more relevant.
Messages that are easily digestible and meet criteria 1-3 will be more shareable than ones that are not.
In this information environment then, if you want to get your message out, you try to craft something that arouses a strong emotion and is specifically targeted at the audience you want to reach. If you don’t believe me, then think about how Trump’s campaign so masterfully employed Facebook targeting to reach their key demographics. While many still claim that Russian meddling helped to win the election, in reality it was strong, emotional and tailored content that won the day.
Recently, Dr. Ann Dale, researcher Brigitte Petersen and I conducted a study in which we looked at the hashtag community formed by people who post using the tag #ClimateChange on Instagram. We wanted to see whether this community showed evidence of the potential for community agency, that is to say, do the posts related to this hashtag seem like content that could, under the right circumstances, inspire community action around the issue of global warming?