12 February 2015

New Beginnings

It's hard to describe how grateful and how fortunate and how excited I am.

I am so grateful for my family.  For my brilliant, passionate, and fiercely supportive wife.  For a new daughter who already reminds me who is really in charge of things.  For a compassionate, insightful, and sweet son.  For parents, siblings, in-laws, and extended family who share stories, support and love.

I am so fortunate to have a career that includes twelve years at an elite global communications consultancy.  APCO Worldwide has some of the sharpest minds in the business and I have learned so much from those who have passed through there and those who remain.  They will no doubt continue to grow and thrive.  I am very fond of my colleagues and proud of what we accomplished there.

I am so excited to launch Wescott Strategic Communications LLC because I care deeply about the work I do and the way it should be done.  We should measure success not only in the "placements" we get in media outlets but also in the relationships we build with stakeholders.  Bloggers are our strategic partners, not our targets for spammy pitches. We should be their advocates.  Our work should break barriers and build bridges between diverse communities.  We should give people the facts they need to make informed decisions. Most of all, we should work relentlessly and transparently and passionately for our clients.

It has been a crazy couple of months - starting a new business and securing clients while welcoming an addition to the family - but there are so many people who have helped me realize this possibility and deserve my thanks.  They'll be hearing from me directly.

It's time to get to work.

20 January 2015

Science communication in 2015: adapt or die, part 2

"Clarity" is the mantra for many science communicators.  Science must be made clear to the masses.

Clarity is also the greatest challenge for the field as a whole - not clarity of content, but clarity of goals and metrics.  In other words, we know what science communication is, but we can't clearly articulate why we do it - and we have absolutely no idea if we're doing it right.  This is the source of so much frustration among many science communicators.

First, let's be clear about something: if your primary interest is simply writing great science articles, you already know your audience.  It's you.  There's clearly nothing wrong with this, but this blog post isn't about you.  Here, go read about radio waves in space or something.

If your goal is to communicate science for a reason beyond enjoyment there are some things to keep in mind:

1. Know your audience.  This is the first rule of communication. Identify who you want to reach, and be as specific as possible about it.  The more specifically you define your audience, the more likely you are to know how to influence it.  Too many science communicators think "the public" is an audience.   It's usually not.  Maybe your real audience is state legislators in North Carolina who criminalized sea level rise, or moms who have questions about GMO's, or farmers who see antibiotics as the difference between a profit and a loss.

2. If you have a reason, you should have a goal.  The easiest way to know if you've influenced an audience is to ask it to do something - and this is where goals and metrics become real.   If your goal is "soft," such as general awareness or information, ask your readers to share your article, and count the number of social shares.  If your goal is policy oriented, put a link in your piece to the email address of a policy maker and count the number of outclicks.  If your goal is giving parents the information they need to make smart decisions for feeding their families, put together an infographic or a .pdf fact sheet and count the number of times it is downloaded.

3. Replicate the results.  Keep track of how many times your audience did what you asked of it, and the approach you took.  Learn from it.  Try different methods.  If this sounds familiar to scientists... well, that's kind of the point.

30 December 2014

Science communication in 2015: adapt or die, Part 1

Scientific American recently made some changes to its blog network that many people saw coming.  A number of blogs were removed and some added. While some cancellations raised some eyebrows, many of the discontinued blogs were either dormant or not drawing enough traffic to justify the spot.  What struck me most, however, was this statement from the editors:
people expect a higher level of accuracy, integrity, transparency and quality from media organizations...
Actually, no.  The way people consume information - and the way people view credibility - has evolved, and the number of credible experts moving to blogs and social media has increased dramatically over the past few years.  SCOTUSblog has consistently operated at a higher level than any "brand name" media outlet covering the Supreme Court.  If the topic is sports, it's easier to question the motives of the reporter whose salary is drawn almost directly from the sports league he covers than it is the kid who reports trades on Twitter before they're announced.

It has become fashionable for many in the science communication ecosphere to criticize Scientific American (and their parent company, Nature Publishing Group) as stodgy and out of touch.  So when Scientific American applies the rules of "Branding 101" and removes those blogs that don't align closest to their core offering, some rightly suggest they also risk limiting their reach.

This doesn't mean, however, that SciAm has written off growing its readership.  In fact, the blog network still offers a great opportunity to do just that - if they take the right actions.

For example, they can provide meaningful financial incentives to their bloggers to grow and diversify their audience - and bring those readers in from their blogs to the main site. They can actively market their bloggers as thought leaders to other outlets. They can provide media and outreach training to their bloggers.  They can forge partnerships with unlikely allies that would love targeted content - online portals dedicated to other topics.  My guess is they're already considering a lot of this.  

If Scientific American (or another major name in science writing) demonstrates leadership with this, they can help address a desperate need.

Science communication is critically linked to support for science itself.  Right now support for "science" is soft.  People generally like it, but not enough to push back when it contradicts someone's ideology or business interests.  This makes it easier to cut public funding for science, build marketing plans based on ignorance, or deny science altogether.

If science is to win the day on policy and business decisions, scientists and science communicators must resist looking inward so much and start exploring and getting to know other audiences. They must stop complaining about what isn't possible and start doing what is. 

In short, they must embrace a new sense of entrepreneurship, a willingness to work with new partners under new (yet fair) rules, and a passion for growing and knowing an audience as much as possible.

In the coming days and weeks I will be discussing these ideas in more detail, and I welcome input of all kinds.