Engaging the Public Where They Live:
Lessons for Better Science Communication from Media Personalities and Strategists
By: Vanessa Sung, Marie Franquin, Shawn McGuirk, Tina Gruosso, and Mary-Rose Bradley-Gill
Social media has become an essential means of communication for politicians, scientists, and the public at large to interact with the world and deliver information. As much as the broad diversity of these media platforms facilitates rapid diffusion of information and knowledge, it has also given rise to the proliferation and spread of misinformation. It is more important now than ever for scientists to communicate science and evidence to the public. However, scientists are provided with neither the incentives nor training to engage in effective science communication.
Recognizing the importance of these issues and scientists’ need for guidance in science communication using today’s media platforms, Science & Policy Exchange brought 2 media strategists and 3 science communicators together on a panel to discuss these topics with attendees at the 2017 Canadian Science Policy Conference. Here we share key insights from our panelists and a list of recommendations for effective science communication in today’s media landscape.
Nora Young — Moderator
Nora is a broadcaster, writer, and host of Spark on CBC Radio One, a radio show and podcast about issues at the intersection of technology and culture.
Pascal Lapointe — Panelist
Pascal is a science journalist and has been the Chief Editor of the Agence Science-Presse for nearly 10 years. He helped establish their own fact checking platform, the Détecteur de rumeurs, which carefully investigates and unwinds prevalent rumors and myths.
Alyssa Lerner — Panelist
Alyssa is a Senior Editor at SciShow, one of YouTube’s leading channels for science news and information since 2012. SciShow has over 5 million subscribers and produces content that is broadly accessible to wide audiences.
Kirstine Stewart — Panelist
Kirstine is a media executive who was previously Executive Vice President of English Services at CBC, Vice President Media North America at Twitter, and most recently Chief Strategy Officer at Diply. She is currently President and Chief Revenue Officer of TribalScale, a Toronto digital strategy and development company.
Mark Blevis — Panelist
Mark is President and Digital Public Affairs Strategist at Full Duplex Ltd., where he specializes in online reputation management, crisis communication, and advocacy.
The world is moving quickly. Only a short decade ago, information was, for the most part, delivered unidirectionally. Today, communication channels have multiplied and individual voices can reach the masses with ease on platforms like Twitter. Science communication has been reborn through new media like Instagram, Facebook, and podcasts. Unfortunately, by democratizing communication, these new technologies have also facilitated the proliferation and circulation of disinformation. This is a critical issue that needs to be addressed — we cannot simply wait for automated fact-checking algorithms or machine learning solutions to be developed. The issue is also rooted more deeply than the spread of “fake news”; experts need to engage the broader public in a more meaningful way and, like our new media platforms, this should not be unidirectional.
The fact-checking field initially began mainly as a tool for verifying political comments. In 2015, this was applied more widely to science news for debunking persistent controversies and debates. Now, there are more than 150 fact-checking websites active in over 40 countries. Fact-checking takes time, however, which makes it difficult to apply to breaking news. With such time constraints, journalists cannot always conduct the diligent research to report each topic. We need scientists and science communicators to step in and fill these crucial information gaps.
It’s not all grim — there is an audience for science news! A big part of the challenge, however, is finding ways to reach beyond this core and attract those who may not be immediately interested in science stories. To build a greater culture of science and to engage new audiences, we need to pique their curiosity. Science communication that is successful at this often builds science news into narratives that engage the audience’s emotions or highlight stories that are “weird” to ignite people’s interest.
The panelists’ recommendations on how to communicate science in a compelling yet credible way broadly covered 4 topics — platform, tone, visibility, and media literacy.
Find the platform that works for you
We use the term “social media” broadly, but there are many different platforms. Each platform is fine-tuned to convey a certain type of information effectively and should be used accordingly for best results. It is important to know your target audience! For example:
1) Twitter — facilitates short scientific exchanges between experts and non-experts of different fields, while also allowing access to “science celebrities”.
2) Instagram — visual-based, a space for pretty science pictures with fewer debates.
3) Facebook — allows sharing of large amounts of content to more targeted communities.
If you are new to using social media for science communication, Twitter is a good place to start. Liking and retweeting others’ content is an easy way to ease yourself onto the platform while conveying your ideas and values. When you’re comfortable, start adding original content through replies and posts. Take some time to get familiar with features like hashtags and mentions so you can follow trending topics and engage with others on the platform.
Blogs are also a cheap and easy way to generate online spaces for scientists to advocate for science. Talk about your research, as well as your life outside of work, to give people a chance to know you. Be sure to assess your own experience and comfort level, and adjust your content accordingly. Don’t forget to share your blog posts on social media! Another good option is to submit guest pieces to existing blogs with an established audience.
Our panelists shared a few more ground rules for social media. Avoid posting while angry! Read more than you write! Only share content that you understand and that is from credible sources — avoid clickbait!
Strike the right tone
Complicated issues can be made more appealing by using simple vocabulary, plain language, and a conversational tone. Alyssa Lerner cited an example of a SciShow video on the scientific replication crisis as one that achieved remarkable success even though the topic was not a straightforward one. Analogies and metaphors can be useful tools for explaining complicated ideas. “Weird”, quirky, or counterintuitive science stories tend to do well with broad audiences.
Audio formats like radio and podcasts should adopt a storytelling style, with well-structured explanations that can be conveyed clearly without visual aid. It is particularly important to develop narratives that are relatable to the audience and are emotionally engaging. A good story will emphasize the storyteller’s personal experiences or highlight the broader societal consequences of the topic at hand.
Be authentic and passionate about the message you want to convey! Nora Young noted that enthusiasm is one of the key criteria she uses for selecting guests for her show Spark, as these are the storytellers who will connect with the audience the most. Scientists should not be afraid to publicly voice their opinions and perspectives, as this is often what will pique interests. A word of caution: do not stray too far outside your range of expertise and personal life experiences. It is important to be honest and relatable to build and maintain your credibility.
Another good way to build a strong online reputation as a scientist is to start locally — for example, if a local news outlet shows inaccurate content, contact them and offer to fact-check their story. Do not directly attack any person’s opinion or berate bad content, rather take an indirect route by presenting the facts and clarifying data. This is also important when it comes to challenging pseudoscience and misconceptions, either online or in person. Present different sides of scientific debates, making clear what we know, how we know it, and importantly, what we do not know. Respect your audience and allow them to make their own evidence-informed opinions. Over time, you will build a reputation as a trusted scientist.
Maximize your visibility
Your science communication also needs visibility! Without it, your impact will be limited. Mark Blevis suggested 3 ways of generating attention for your content:
1) Piggyback on cultural phenomena by creating content about controversial topics. When putting it online, include keywords (and hashtags) related to all sides of the debate so that your content will show up even for audiences of the opposite opinion.
2) Make cultural references that will capture people’s attention. For example, the US Centre for Disease Control ran a campaign publicizing measures to be taken in case of an epidemic, where the advertisement strategy included a blog post on preparing for a zombie apocalypse.
3) If you have the means, pay for promotion of your content to targeted demographics on social media.
Of course, competition for attention online is relentless. Kirstine Stewart reminded us that the algorithms that rule social media platforms are fine-tuned to reward attention from users, regardless of how reliable the information is. To stem the spreading of “fake news”, we should intentionally and collectively support good information and allow it to be promoted by the algorithms. Don’t feed the trolls!
For science journalists, part of the challenge is finding stories that align with the current climate and interests of the public. Personnel and budget limitations mean that journalists are often more receptive to stories related to mainstream controversies and debates. Pascal Lapointe advised that scientists should think about how their research story fits in the context of this particular moment, what makes it special now, and how it connects to current news.
Journalists also work under the pressure of publication deadlines; they can’t always afford to spend long periods of time searching and waiting for scientists to contribute their expertise. Support science journalism by making yourself available to journalists and answering promptly when contacted for comment on a story. Scientists, answer your emails!
Universities should also take leadership in science communication by helping to publicize their researchers’ work. The panelists offered 3 recommendations:
1) Universities should publish press releases that are accessible to a broad audience.
2) Institutional websites can be difficult to navigate, especially when searching for experts in specific fields. Universities should improve their search engines to include keywords, CVs, abstracts, etc., so that experts can be easily found.
3) Universities should incentivize scientists, perhaps through funding opportunities, to participate in science communication and view it as an integral part of their work.
Support media literacy training
Every day, adults and children alike are exposed to an immense amount of information on mainstream and social media. Long-term approaches, like media literacy training, are needed to inoculate against pseudoscience and “fake news”. While media literacy training is available through some elementary and high school curricula, implementation is inconsistent. Media literacy training for adults is even more scarce. Scientists need to advocate for, support, and participate in initiatives to build a framework for widespread media education.