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?