Last Friday, I spent the morning at a workshop on scholarly public communication put on by MSU Communications and Brand Strategy. The workshop, which was titled "Communicating Beyond Journals and Peers: An Introduction to Public Communication," was led by Sheril Krishenbaum and John Besley. I had a great time and took a few tidbits away that I thought would be interesting to share here.
Figure 1 A bad self-introduction. Don’t do this.
How do you introduce yourself? No really, I want you to introduce yourself to me.
If it would make you more comfortable, I’ll go first.
Hi. I’m Matthew. I’m interested in more rigorously understanding how evolution works so that we can use evolution-inspired techniques to solve practical problems. I work with an awesome interdisciplinary community of evolutionary biologists and computer scientists at BEACON. I’m also really passionate about STEM education. I work as a teaching assistant in middle school mathematics classrooms in East Lansing.
Now, it’s your turn. Go!
Introducing ourselves is one of those things that we do because we have to. I tend to introduce myself without really thinking about it. I had certainly never thought about what my objective was in introducing myself. This, however, was exactly the question that the presenters posed to us. Here are a few introduction objectives we came up with brainstorming as a group:
- provide topical seeds for further conversation,
- overview your work to look for opportunities to collaborate on shared interests,
- demonstrate your competency by listing achievements or positions held, and
- come across as warm/friendly and non-elitist in order to facilitate further conversation.
This isn’t an exhaustive listing. Plus, your objectives for a self-introduction will certainly vary from context to context. You might very well have entirely other objectives when introducing yourself. It’s worth taking a few seconds to think about. I also think it’s worthwhile to take a minute to re-craft your introduction in light of your now-defined objectives. (Hopefully, you plan on introducing yourself at least a few more times over the course your life…)
How does defining objectives relate to communicating scholarly work? Once you have defined your objectives, you can begin thinking strategically about how to achieve them.
Hazy objectives that are not outcome-oriented like "share my knowledge," "get people excited about my field," or even "communicate my research" will not get your very far. (Interesting side note from the presenters: knowledge is widely considered to have a minuscule impact on behavior. If you want to influence decision-making, sharing knowledge — even if you have a very well-defined knowledge-sharing goal — won’t get you very far).
Here is another non-exhaustive list, this one stocked with more concrete communication objectives that came up in conversation:
- demonstrate tangible positive outcomes from your important research in order to ensure continued public support (funding) for your important research field;
- demonstrate scholarly work as a key component of society in order to ensure continued public support (funding) for your important research field;
- pull certain political ropes in order to achieve specific policy outcome X that is important to your research or your research suggests is important for public welfare;
- make the general public comfortable with (or at least non-opposed to) your potentially controversial research (e.g. genetic engineering) so that you may continue to conduct your important research;
- engage young people with your research field in order to increase future participation and diversity in science (i.e. ensure a high-quality pool of future graduate students…);
- demonstrate to funding agencies interest in and engagement with your important research from the general public in order to ensure continued support (funding) for your important research;
- demonstrate to the institutional powers that be interest in and engagement with your important research from the general public in order to advance your career and continue your important research; and
- spur public debate on topic X in forum Z in order to gain insight into topic X from perspectives different from your own relevant to your important research.
The importance of clearly defined objectives to strategic communication was driven home to me by our conversation around the work of one of the other workshop participants. Her lab had recently developed an innovative process to transform certain waste products from paper manufacturing into an adhesive that could replace the more costly and toxic glue currently in use. In her own words, she had come to the workshop because she wanted to "communicate her research." With a bit of prodding from the presenters, she clarified her goal to promoting adoption of this waste-to-glue process by industry. With a bit more conversation, she defined these three sub-goals,
- industry: make manufacturers aware of the benefits of the waste-to-glue process and teach them how to perform it;
- consumers: communicate the benefits of the waste-to-glue process so that consumers will pressure manufacturers to use it by preferentially buying from those that have adopted it; and
- policy makers: pull political ropes to ensure support for continued research and to spur regulatory action in order to incentivize adoption of the waste-to-glue process.
With specific goals like these defined, thinking about strategy becomes more straightforward. Here are several important considerations when strategizing:
- your communication channel,
- How will you reach your target audience?
- What publications do paper manufacturers read?
- What conferences do they go to?
- the content of your message, and
- Especially, what do you not need to say?
- the manner in which you actually deliver that message.
- What will different audiences read between the lines of what you say?
- Does your vocabulary come off as out of touch?
- Do you want to be perceived as a concerned parent?
- Will you come off as overly political?
- Hint: hopeful/positive messaging is often more likely to resonate.
Of course, once you have clearly defined goals your colleagues — and the communication professionals at your institution — will be able to provide much more useful input on your strategy.
In traditional media outlets, stories don’t get an automatic pass past the editor’s desk. This doesn’t mean you need to win a Nobel prize in order to get the Podunk Times to pick up your story. (Remember: what you do is inherently somehow interesting; otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing it, right?) You don’t need the Field medal or even, necessarily, a publication. What you need is a "peg," an answer to the question "why now?" Here are a few pegs that will make an editor’s nose for news tingle.
- current events
- Does your scholarship relate to what’s already in the headlines?
- Did a celebrity say something, preferably controversial, related to your scholarship? Then the time might be right for a scholarly voice to back up their comments or, more likely, debunk them.
- This can be a scholarly debate, a dispute between interest groups (e.g. environmentalists and industry, progressives and conservatives, etc.), or any other situation where personalities or factions are at loggerheads. ( Caution: journalists tend to overuse the conflict peg because it is easy to write and sells well. For example, how helpful — or even accurate — is it to frame capital S Science as a belligerent in a culture war? Remember, the outcome of war is annihilation. )
- Basically, you just published (or will imminently publish) something
- novel (is notably different from existing results/theory) and
- new (will be made public in the immediate past or imminent future). Good job!
- You want to discuss a topic that is directly hurting people or damaging property. Even if that topic’s not front page news, people will probably still care.
- Spam’s 50th anniversary and National Richter Scale Day
- This is my favorite peg. Just find a historical anniversary or obscure holiday your message ties in with. The presenters highlighted a marketing scholar who marked Spam’s 80th Anniversary with some commentary on consumer brand attachment. Historical anniversaries and obscure holidays are wildly abundant, so this one is basically a freebie. If you dig around enough, you will certainly find an occasion suitable to whatever message you want to get out. Alternatively, invent your own occasion.
The presenters were gung-ho about a media distribution network called The Conversation that Michigan State has bought into. It seems to me like there really is something behind the banner waving, though. This service curates topical articles written by academics across US institutions. For those familiar, it seems something like an institutional version of Medium. It’s "killer feature" is that editors at major outlets regularly troll through The Conversation in search of work to republish (with proper accreditation) on their own platforms. Articles on The Conversation have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, CNN, Scientific American, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Quartz, and the Huffington Post, among others. Even if your writing isn’t picked up by an outside outlet, The Conversation seems to have decent readership in and of itself. Of course, detailed analytics data for your articles is available to you on an online dashboard so you can easily quantify your impact.
This service seems to be an attractive compromise between maintaining control of how your work is presented (you write content the yourself) and the greater reach that was traditionally achieved by working with journalists. However, you still work with an editor when writing for The Conversation. This means you can’t just call in rote press releases or other decontextualized self-promotion like you might through your own lab’s blog or your own university’s PR department — you have to provide a good peg for the story you want to tell.
If your communications objective would be well-served by publishing in an institutionally-recognized (read: administratively-favored) scholarly platform with the opportunity for quantifiable, widespread general-audience readership, working with The Conversation might be interesting to you. (Remember: padding your CV is a great goal in service of your career and, ultimately, research objectives).
You can watch MSU’s promotional video about The Conversation here.
My Own Two Cents
Even if done in the most well-meaning, constructive manner, having other people tell me how to talk or represent me and my work in ways that I wouldn’t is just hard for me. I care about how I present myself and my work; I have strong opinions and I like to keep control. I suspect that, to some degree, most people who invest heavily in their work and their career feel similarly. Having to repackage work that’s interesting in its own right in ways that might feel contrived — and, to some degree, having yourself repackaged in ways you might never of your own volition — sometimes doesn’t feel good. I think this is a normal way to feel. I also think it is normal to react through resentment, eye-rolling, or even shirking the repackaging work that sometimes feels yucky or futile.
Last year, back at the University of Puget Sound, two other students and I ranked highly in the international Mathematical Competition in Modeling. Of course, the administration ate it up. The university issued a colorful press release that ended up in a campus-wide faculty newsletter. The press release neglected all of what I thought was interesting — our actual approach to the modeling problem and our policy recommendations — and instead lauded our competitive placing and declared us "sizzling young mathematicians."
Honestly, part of me felt as if I had been handed a pair of size 50 shoes, bright green suspenders, a bad toupee and got dropped into the middle of a three ring circus. Would I voluntarily describe myself as a "sizzling young mathematician?" Not in a million years. Not even on a tinder profile. (well, okay… maybe).
Last year, when I was doing my due diligence sorting through graduate school applications, I came across an article about Avida from 2005 written by Lawrence Consentino for the Lansing Voice. The article struck me as ludicrously irreverent. Here is a representative excerpt:
“And,” he adds with grave emphasis, “the code which allows them to do it isn’t something we programmed in. It’s something that evolved.” (“Evolved, evolved, evolved,” goes the sci-fi echo.)
The subtext I took away: an overly generous dose of the author’s energetic wit is necessary to make this research at all interesting.
Here’s the thing. This repackaging is necessary because it works — it’s not silly if it’s strategic. Public relations people and journalists are professionals. Their job is different from ours and, generally, they are good at it.
During the workshop, I was cautioned against using the word "biodiversity" without at least defining it first. Avoiding "heterogeneous" seemed reasonable, but biodiversity? "Sure," I thought. To my surprise, some of the other scholars at the workshop were not totally familiar with the term biodiversity. My assumptions were completely wrong; I had harbored a big blind spot about my audience. Just like I might not pick up that "broadening recruitment" really just means putting together a more diverse workforce, it was off-base to assume universal familiarity with the notion of biodiversity. On a second reading of Lawrence Consentino’s article, I noticed some of the nuanced points he was able to make through those outlandish metaphors.
Do you want to achieve those communication goals that you just laid out so nicely a minute ago? Yes, you do. If that process requires mild commodification of my work, or even myself, with a strategic mindset that’s a trade-off I’ll happily make. If my alma mater can further its reputation or make a buck or two off it, I will be a sizzling young mathematician and I will like it.