Sunday, October 31, 2010

Science and Media Communications: turning data into enlightenment - Part 1 of 3

Mankind stands at the edge of a dark night. Faced with enormous environmental and ecological challenges, we hesitate to take a first step, unsure of ourselves without a clear understanding of what is happening and what is at stake. But science can illuminate the future of this planet.

We ask a lot of science. It has done everything from having given us better-tasting ice cream to the hydrogen bomb. It has answered fundamental questions about the existence of the universe and shown us how to hold up our pants with Velcro. And now we seek solutions to environmental problems - mostly of our own making - that threaten the survival of thousands of species, including us.

In a world where communication can be near instantaneous and pervasive, we look for guidance to make the right decisions that can insure a future for this planet. We are looking for subject matter experts who can speak to us - simply and effectively - and science has been doing its best.

But it is just the tip of the iceberg. Science is not doing enough.

In the years that I have spent as a nature filmmaker and media producer, I have come to find that there is an enormous amount of data being generated from countless research projects, expeditions, and studies that is not reaching the people. It's not reaching the policy- and decision-makers. It is not having the impact on the future of this planet as it should.

To a large extant, this is understandable. Scientists, researchers, and academics spend years developing the skills to study, hypothesize, and analyze. They are trained to make science but not necessarily to sell it. To effectively communicate in today's world requires scientists and researchers to consider an additional discipline to their work, one that understandably may not be a part of their background or comfort level: Media Communications.

Media Communications
The techniques of communicating effectively to a general or targeted audience by utilizing today's available technologies that best transmit a message, generate a response, and invoke action.

This is an exciting time for media communications. The ability to reach people through a variety of communication mediums or formats is literally exploding. But to do it successfully requires strategic planning. One must examine what it is being communicated and then match the appropriate audience with the right communication vehicles to maximize the power of the message. Media communications itself is part science, part art form. And it requires an experienced hand to formulate, execute, and manage an ongoing, dynamic plan.

To demand this expertise of the scientist or researcher is not fair. After all, there are people who devote entire careers to media communications. After having spent over a dozen years in television commercial production, I migrated into corporation communications and marketing. I had seen the power of the visual image in delivering a message and then spent a decade dealing with the full range of message delivery through print, word-of-mouth, visual and audio broadcast and, of course, the ubiquitous Internet.

With the issues facing the world today, the old formula of writing a paper for publication in a scientific or academic journal, followed by a press release from the supporting university or research organization, is becoming wholly inadequate. In fact, as important as it is to the scientists involved or however much it adds to the prestige of the supporting organization, it actually is doing a disservice - it is shortchanging the potential of that research to really make a difference. And that's what is at stake here: making a difference in the future of planet Earth.

Being Proactive
To say the Internet has become quite a game-changer for message delivery is indeed a gross understatement. From websites to videos to blogs, there is a mind-boggling amount of information awaiting the curious user at the end of a few keyboard clicks. And many academic and research organizations have done what they can to take advantage of this medium with informational websites and videos that document their research or illustrate the results. This is a good step forward, but its one weakness is that it is not necessarily a proactive step.

To consciously and deliberately bring information to a specific audience, one must be proactive and the Internet does not lend itself to a proactive approach. Fundamentally, it depends on the user to be seeking the information. The user either searches for the information via search engines like Google, Bing, Ask or others, or the information is compiled for them by complex search algorithms (like suggested YouTube videos or products on eBay).

Word of mouth plays a significant role in information delivery on the Internet. The "viral" effect that can bestow a YouTube video with millions of hits within a short period of time is definitely a plus. However, it is more in the hands of others and less of your own making.

Now, none of this is meant to imply that one should disregard the Internet. To the contrary, it is an absolutely vital component of a comprehensive media communications strategy. Its effectiveness can be enhanced by carefully selected keywords or a more traditional promotional approach through the use of banner ads - all designed to nudge the user in your direction.

However, overall, it is more of a "pull" rather than "push" delivery system, and a complete media communications battle plan must have proactive initiatives that bring the information to those who need it most. Someone who is interested in, say, ocean acidification can find a lot of information on the web, but how do we reach the person who, at this moment, is completely oblivious to the issue? How do we get this information in front of a politician or governmental regulatory body? Do we wait for them to ask or do we find ways to bring to their attention?

Part 2: Steps to building a media comm strategy

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