Developing a Strategy
There are many pieces to a media communications strategy and no two plans are alike. Though there can be a methodical process to building it, the end result should be unique to each project. A good starting point is to explore three fundamental and interdependent questions: what you want to say, how you want to say it, and to whom?
The first question we'll explore in more detail shortly. "How you want to say it" opens the door to a vast array of communication vehicles at your disposal. Besides the traditional academic paper, there are solicited or self-written articles for non-academic publications, summary brochures or booklets, press releases, media opportunity announcements, educational curriculum materials, books, direct mail, email, informational websites, blogs, and many, many more. And that's just in the print medium.
Then there are the visual arts: photographs, slide/"powerpoint" presentations, lectures/speaking engagements, videos/films - either for broadcast, online, or DVD/download distribution, PSAs (public service announcements), webcasts and podcasts, retail digital and outdoor signage and, again, many more. Combined with other high-tech distribution methodologies and outlets, there is a seemingly endless number of avenues to pursue.
But you can't have it all. Some of the determining factors in narrowing down the field to the most appropriate communication channels can be resources (the almighty dollar), time, and even the participants themselves. Is the project best served by having the project members before the camera, before live audiences? Can they be another Carl Sagan? Or should there be qualified stand-ins or representatives; or should the data simply speak for itself?
Tied in very closely with all of this is the question of to whom you want to say it. Basically, who it is you are trying to reach. In the business world, this is referred to as identifying your markets. A company considers the best way to reach its different market segments - and a scientific research group developing an outreach program would be doing the exact same thing. Do you wish to reach politicians and other policy- or decision-makers? Adults? Men or women? School kids? Younger children? National or international audiences, particularly ones with different or even opposing cultural perspectives? Even if your decision was to reach all of the above, careful consideration must be given as to how best to speak to each group.
Data Translation: What did he just say?
"In polar bear plasma samples no binding of [125I]-T4 to TTR was observed after incubation and PAGE separation. Incubation of the plasma samples with [14C]-4-OH-CB107, a compound with a higher binding affinity to TTR than the endogenous ligand T4 resulted in competitive binding as proven by the appearance of a radio labeled TTR peak in the gel. Plasma incubation with T4 up to 1 mM, a concentration that is not physiologically relevant anymore did not result in any visible competition." - excerpt from a study abstract.
What you want to say usually requires translation. The language of science can be precise and detailed. It can also be obscure and arcane to a non-scientific audience. A media communication strategy succeeds only when it is able to relay a message, a story, to a particular group of people on a level that can be easily understood and appreciated.
However, this does not mean that one must appeal to a lowest common denominator, to "dumb it down" as it were. An effective translation is, in a sense, not a vertical exercise but a horizontal one. You are sidestepping from one language to another. I never underestimate the capacity of any audience to grasp complex subjects. The difference is in the steps one takes to lead the audience to the conclusion you want them to comprehend.
There are exercises that I take a client through to distill the data down to an easily understood message. While which exercise I choose may depend on the nature of the project or the people I am working with, all have a common trait: they are simple but repetitive, running the data through a linguistic filter over and over again until you are left with just the valuable nuggets of information.
Often, the desired message is one that is relevant to the audience, impacting their lives and provoking some sort of response or action. In advertising, this is the "call to action" - what gets someone off of the couch to order the chrome-plated swizzle stick and deep fryer combo shown on TV. But it must never be deceptive or misleading (as can be the case in some advertising). This is critically important. The data depended on scientific accuracy and precision; a successful message depends on credibility and integrity.
It is important that any scientist or group of scientists, who wish to enlist the aid of a media communications specialist, have a good working relationship and a clear understanding with their media counterpart. Veteran nature film producer Chris Palmer described it in his book, Shooting in the Wild, when discussing ethical film making, "It's important to choose partners carefully. Before they begin, the parties need to agree on both the goals of the project and the most ethical way to accomplish them. If a film tells a scientist's story well, it's easier for that researcher to find funding for further study and to cultivate a scientifically literate public."
Three Message Goals
Often when the data has environmental or ecological significance, a good message can be derived by focusing on three sequential goals: issues, implications, and solutions.
The media communications expert works with the scientific team in translating the data and its results into clearly defined issues. What is at stake here? What does this mean to the audience we are addressing? One might think that it would be fairly obvious and easy to glean from the research, and most of the time it is. However, there are situations where the data is so observational, it takes time to define the conclusions that will resonate with a non-scientific audience.
Issues lead to implications. This is where the message, in essence, becomes personal. One of the best ways to get the attention of any group is to show how an issue will effect them personally. For the most part, mankind is a pretty self-centered species. And conservation or environmental issues can seem remote or obscure until the implications to our day-to-day lives can be shown. Research can often identify a cause and effect - that's the issue. But in that complex puzzle we call nature, one effect often cascades into another and another; and from there implications can be ascertained. Part of the success of Vice President Al Gore's slide show presentations and subsequent documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, was his ability to take the data and present it as issues and then implications, many of which jarred the viewer into realizing the seriousness of global warming.
Providing solutions is where the call to action comes into full force. Without solutions, the message then is driving the audience right into a brick wall: What are we to do? What should our political or business leaders be doing? How can I help? The solutions can be specific, directed towards individual or governmental action, or they may simply infer a direction for others to pursue. In any case, providing solutions is as equally important as presenting the problem.
In the opening passage to this article (Part 1), the importance of a message's issues, implications, and solutions was expressed, ". . . 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."
What is happening: issues. What is at stake: implications. Science can illuminate: solutions. Three fundamental components to an effective media communications strategy.
Part 3: Implementation and a new science paradigm