Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Do women need bigger mouths?

Over the past few months I’ve become increasingly irritated by the number of science-themed events that I’ve been invited to that have an all male line-up. It started off with the Royal Society’s events at the Labour and Conservative Party conferences, then there was the Times Top 100 scientists list last week, in which women were virtually invisible (but which I can’t link to because of the paywall). But the final straw came last week at the International Public Communication in Science and Technology (PCST) Conference in Delhi, where platform after platform was packed with male speakers – many of whom had little to say, while intelligent, interesting women sat silently in the audience.

To calm me, a colleague (male and very successful but not on the Times list!) pointed out that in their list, the Times had actually listed the 100 people with the biggest mouths in science. This made me think about my role as a science communicator, which is after all to encourage scientists to have bigger mouths. Is science so male dominated that success is man-shaped or are women reticent about coming forward and so are being ignored? And are we as communicators guilty of being complicit in this? It’s an important point – as Jenny Kitzinger points out in her recent paper in Public Understanding of Science journal looking at media representation of women in science, while fewer than one in five SET employees is female, the mass media has a crucial role in either reinforcing of challenging such gender segreation and inequalities. “Misrepresentation or lack of representation can amount to a form of symbolic annihilation”.

I tried to think about the process I go through when planning events and thinking up speakers. We all like to think that we pick the best people for the jobs – indeed that’s what the organiser of one of the men-only events told me. But we are also know that we are drawn to people similar to ourselves. So while we think we are being open minded, we sometimes aren’t. For instance, a few years ago I was discussing candidates to chair a public meeting with a client. I had worked with the client for many months and had never found him to have any prejudices whatsoever. But when he was suggesting names of people to chair the meeting, he ran through everyone on his management committee except the only woman member. When I asked why he hadn’t suggested her (innocently assuming that he had diplomatically ignored her because she was mad or inarticulate) he looked aghast and horrified as he admitted that he hadn’t even thought of her. It wasn’t that he didn’t think she was up to the job – indeed once he realised his omission he suggested that she would be by far the best person for the role. Maybe she didn’t go for a drink with him after meetings, or didn’t phone him or email him on a regular basis. Whatever the reason, she just didn’t pop into his mind when he was thinking about suitable people to chair the meeting and almost missed out on the chance to do what you need to do to be ‘influential’.

So, what’s the lesson here? I for one am going to be more careful when I think about people to speak at events or write pieces for me because I want the best people, not just those that spring to mind first. I also want to encourage more women scientists to volunteer to do this kind of thing and so will be grateful for suggestions of great and interesting female scientists to give speaking opportunities to. And I’m going to avoid attending events with all male speakers. Because while the saying might be true that empty vessels make most noise, it doesn’t seem to be holding back the men does it?

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Communicating risk and uncertainty - don't blame your audience, just communicate right.

I’ve just finished running a workshop for a group of scientists from across Europe on communicating science to policymakers. I’ll write more later about the lessons I was teaching, but first, I wanted to comment on a point that scientists raise with me time and time again training sessions like this – that it’s difficult to communicate uncertainty to non-scientists because they don’t understand risk.

I don’t know if that statement is true or not. But regardless, I do know that it’s not a helpful thought to hold onto if you want or need to communicate uncertainty effectively. Because as a communicator, while we know that the knowledge, experience, thoughts and values of our audience influence how our message is processed, we also know that there is nothing we can do about these personal influences, beyond understanding them as well as we can. To be a good communicator you have to let go of your frustration about other people’s preconceptions and instead focus on controlling the things you can control – your message, your understanding of the audience and your choice of the way you package and send the message. That way, you have the best chance of communicating well and getting your audience to understand what you have to say.

And it is possible. It’s difficult and takes time, thought and effort, but I think it is possible to communicate risk effectively to non-scientists. A good example is the work that Defra and colleagues did around the launch of the UK climate projections earlier this year.

The projections give extremely complicated statistics about the range of climate changes that the UK may experience in future and the extent to which these are supported by the latest evidence. Understanding the meaning of these projections hinges upon understanding the precise meaning of a set of probabilities. Specifically, that the percentage probability assigned to each climate scenario is a measure of how sure the researchers were that a change will happen, rather than the percentage chance of it occurring. Complicated eh? Important to get right though, because getting it wrong risked the media and public interpreting a 90% probability of a temperature rise of 4 degrees as meaning that there is a 90% chance of temperatures rising by 4 degrees (ie is highly likely), when in fact it meant that the researchers were 90% confident that the temperature rise will be less than 4 degrees– that it’s highly unlikely to be 4 degrees or higher in other words.

Determined to get this vital and powerful information right, the team involved communications experts early on and devoted significant time to drafting and drafting briefing notes and media releases. This wasn’t a half hour job, but instead took weeks and weeks of drafting, checking, consulting and redrafting until they had a way of explaining these complex statistics and probabilities clearly and simply.

The results – well you should judge for yourself, from the briefing note that we helped develop, the press release that Defra’s press office produced and of course the media coverage that it generated.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Digital PR, web 2.0 and engaging the public in science

Digital media offer access to significant and growing audiences and is a sector that science communicators and dialogue practitioners cannot afford to ignore. But how do you target these channels?

We've been speaking to digital PR experts and bloggers as part of our work with the ScienceWise-ERC. Our initial expectation, based on our experience with traditional PR, was that they would help us understand how to identify the right blogs and websites to target and how to persuade them to write about our projects. But our research revealed a landscape that is far more complicated and exciting than we had anticipated.

When working with the mainstream media, there are two key knacks to getting media coverage. The first is to find an angle on your story that will catch the attention of journalists – the newshooks. The you have to get it in front of the right journalists. Databases of journalists exist and PR people typically send their press release out to hundreds. OK, sometimes they are tailored for a particular audience and sometimes they’re accompanied by a telephone call, but in general the approach is to send the press release out to as many people as possible.

Oddly, it turns out that neither of these knacks are effective online. Apart from websites (such as the BBC) which follow a journalistic model, most online media (especially social media such as blogs) aren’t driven by the news agenda. Their authors aren’t so interested in circulation figures. Instead they focus on writing about things that interest them, often for a specific niche or group of people. Since these writers know what they’re interested in, they’re also good at finding things that are interesting – signing up to RSS feeds for websites that interest them, doing google searches to find new stuff. Unsolicited press releases usually fall victim to the spam filter.

Four things to think about if you plan to work with online media:
  1. ‘Broadcasting’ doesn’t work - one of the key features of the web is the 'long tail' which means that audiences are niche and very specific. Forget trying to reach everyone and try to reach those that count
  2. Social Media values are not the same as news values - we’re not saying that the news cycle isn’t still alive and well – even online. But bloggers generally don’t consider themselves as catering for a particular audience – most are primarily writing for their own purposes and for people who know them. If that attracts a crowd, then great
  3. Your key audience is a machine - The majority of people find what they want online through search engine, so you have to think about pleasing lines of code in all of your content. This requires regularly updated material, published in a number of places and with as much thought given to keywords as you would ordinarily give to finding newshooks.
  4. The line between communications and dialogue is blurred - The interactivity of the web 2.0 means that the line between communications for promotion and for policy change (or ‘pure dialogue’) is much more blurred than it ever has been off-line – which can be both an opportunity and a challenge.

Monday, 16 February 2009

What's the role for science communicators in dialogue?

The big unasked question for me is what's the role for science communicators in the context of dialogue?

For the last 10 years we've talked about two-way not one-way, dialgoue not deficit but have we talked ourselves out of jobs in the process? Many of the projects funded by the Sciencewise programme have been led by 'dialogue professionals' in more market- or social- research based organisations. While museums, journalists, web designers and other comms folk have been involved, it has been as partners.

Of course helping participants understand the science their debating and publicising the findings of participation projects is an important role, but is that the sum total of our contribution? What else could we and should we be doing?

Projects like Small Talk have shown that science communicators can lead meaningful public dialgoues and reach much bigger numbers than other processes. Is this a possible future role for us ? Or is there a case for good science communication that we need to shout more about? And more importantly, how are we going to fund it?

Perhaps ,as the line between communication and dialogue blurs more and more online, this line of questioning is increasingly artificial. What do you think?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Do we need a digital debating chamber?

A strong thread that has run through most science communication activities for a very long time, is the idea that we go to where the people are - taking science to shopping centres, buses, mass media and so on.

With this 'interruption' model in mind, I started thinking about online PR in terms of getting bloggers to blog about our projects or websites to mention and link to us.  But my conversations with various 'experts' in digital PR have led me to think that I've been looking at this the wrong way round.  I've forgotten that the really clever thing about the web is how easy it is to find stuff.  This means that it's possible to build a following and audience relatively quickly, as long as you are offering interesting content.

But if you're trying to reach a wide cross-section of citizens, then waiting for someone to google 'nanotechnology consultation' is likely to skew your feedback somewhat.  I touched upon this issue in my last blog when I questioned the existence of such 'interest free' citizens.  My digital guru colleague argues that while you can't target 'everyone except those who are likely to be interested', one way around it might be to target 'everyone who wants to have a say'.  This would mean creating a place where online government dialgoue takes place - a kind of digital debating chamber, so that anyone who felt they had something to say can browse and comment on the debates of interest - maybe even starting some of their own.  

Added to that, alerts and RSS feeds could allow people to register their interests and be alerted when a discussion that they'd like to take part in begins - all the kind of thing that's happening in the blogosphere already, but formalised so that it feeds into policymaking rather than just goes into the ether.

Good, bad or mad idea?



Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Is there such thing as an interest-free audience?

In my last blog I wrote about how difficult it is to interest science journalists working in traditional media outlets in public dialgoue.

At Think-Lab, we've started to wonder if we are barking up the wrong tree. The commercial world is increasingly turning towards online media - not just websites, but blogs and places like facebook where you can start a direct conversation with your 'customers'. So could this work for science communicators - especially when we're trying to involve citizens in public engagement activities? Surely directly engaging citizens without the media filter is the solution?

Unfortunately the one feature of the online world that so appeals to people in the commercial sector appears to be something of a drawback for science communicators. Online media outlets are extremely fragmented. This means that it's extremely easy to reach niche audiences (the famous 'long tail') - ideal if you're a model soldier company looking to sell to model soldier enthusiasts, but less helpful when you're trying to involve citizens in discussions about stem cells. You really aren't looking for stem cell enthusiasts, but a posting on the local 'stitch'nbitch' forum might be out of place.

I know we've had lots of debates about public/publics for many years, but the fragmented online world has made me wonder whether we ever did move beyond the concept of a 'disinterested public' when it comes to public dialogue and engagement. For many projects, the mass media is seen as a bridge from the world of policy to the world of these disinterested creatures. But it's not a realistic perception - newspapers reach particular groups of people, and an even more particular sub-set of those read a given article. Even if you get the occasional person with no interest in stem cells accidentally reading an article about your stem cell consultation (maybe it's next to an article about knitting?) surely they're not going to volunteer to take part in the debate unless they have some personal connection to the issue? Apart from those instances when projects have chosen participants off the electoral register and paid them to give their views, have we ever really involved citizens who aren't interested? Is it time to move away from the 'interrruption' model of communication and come to terms with the fact that our audiences are interested, so that we can start defining the niches to target more clearly?

Monday, 26 January 2009

How do we involve the mass media in public dialogue?

We're often asked to generate press coverage of public engagement/dialogue activities, to help recruit participants to the events, to encourage people to take part in an online debate or to share the findings of the engagement.

While we've had great success in attracting the attention of local and regional press, the national media have been particularly difficult to engage. Getting them to cover the findings is reasonably straightforward - the news value is clear isn't it? But asking them to play a role in the democratic process (i.e. providng the information and signposting to enable citizens to take part) seems almost impossible. We've tried all the tricks in the book - linking it to a scientific breakthrough, offering great speakers for interview, getting scientists and politicians to make controversial statemements, to name but a few.

This, coupled with the declining readership of mainstream media, is leading us to think that we're wasting our time and should focus on online outlets.

But, before we abandon the old completely, I want to ask whether we are alone in this? Do any of you have examples where you have successfully attracted traditional national media coverage that has enabled people to take part in a public debate or dialogue and how did you do it? Do any science journalists have any suggestions that might help us?