10 Useful Ways to Communicate Conservation Science


C. Coimbra photo

Editor’s Note:  Author and ocean activist, David Helvarg, recently listed  10 Useful Ways to Communicate Conservation Science in a handout for a recent workshop that included scientists and conservationists. 

1. The World Doesn’t Know What You Know

Many of us develop a sphere of expertise and after working with our peers and seeing a few stories in the popular media come to believe the public knows more about what we do than it does. In the United States for example (based on a Google survey of news stories with ‘Ocean’ in the title) people are clearly more familiar with the singer and songwriter Frank Ocean than ocean acidification. With our “Planet at the Crossroads,” your knowledge of conservation issues and science is too important for you not to effectively communicate it to others.

2. Get Beyond Peer-Reviewed Journals

In times of crisis we need to get outside our comfort zones. Numerous polling surveys indicate scientists are among the most respected and trusted sources of information for the public. While peer-reviewed scientific journals are vital to increasing our knowledge, timely communication of that knowledge into the spheres of law and policy require that scientists engage with “gray media.” “Gray media” is magazines, newspapers, broadcast outlets, online blogs, etc. where over 99 percent of people learn about what’s happening in the world. This media is not in fact “gray,” it’s essential.

3. Know Who You Are Talking To

I’ve encountered scientists who’ve told me they don’t do interviews with journalists because they’ve been misquoted or had their work misrepresented in the past. When I ask by who they often aren’t sure which reporters they spoke to. “The Media” is a spectrum that at its best end includes some great science reporters. If you see articles or stories about your subject area that are good check out the byline to see who wrote them. Maybe send them a note of thanks. Try and develop relationships with journalists whose work you respect. Be assured they are already looking for good sources like you with stories to be told. These are the people you will come to trust to explain your work. In any case you should learn to be media literate when fielding calls. A few good professional journalist groups worth becoming familiar with are the U.S. based Society of Environmental Journalists and National Association of Science Writers as well as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

4. Work With Professional Communicators

If you are based at a university or NGO that has a communications staff make sure to develop a good working relationship with them so they can help get your story out and alert you to the needs, types and kinds of media they work with.

In addition there are groups such as COMPASS co-founded by Dr. Jane Lubchenco that coach and train conservation scientists to better engage with journalists, policymakers and other non-scientific audiences in order to share what they know and why it matters.

A similar fellows-based training program is the Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University (leopoldleadership@stanford.edu).

5. Talk About the Implications of Your Work

The best journalists put their stories into a larger context so people get, for example, why a frog, a tree or a coral reef matter. Scientists need to do the same. You may talk about colony collapse disorder for bees, but if the people you’re presenting to don’t understand the relationship of pollinators and plants it’s unlikely your work will generate much interest or action. It’s a reasonable separation to say that while your study is limited to A you understand its implications could impact B even as you admit you are not a specialist on B. This could help you in your fieldwork by increasing the number of people who value and thus advocate for what you’re doing.

6. Don’t Report Data – Tell A Story

Every profession has specialized language and data. It’s not enough to communicate that to a general audience even if you think you’re being clear and concise. Rather than simply present findings, you need to tell stories for most people to understand. A story is a narrative account that explains something from it origin, creates dynamic tension in the unfolding of the process and reaches a resolution at the end – even if that resolution is “we now have something new and fascinating here that requires more study.” Telling the story of your work is how you engage audiences.

7. Then Tell the Story Behind the Story

While many of us are fascinated by biota including plants, ants and elephants, most people are more interested in people. The challenges of doing your work, the funny stories you tell at the base camp or at the end of a day at the marine field station, are the commonalities of life that will humanize your work, your findings and your science. The insatiable curiosity of the scientist played by Sigourney Weaver in the movie Avatar makes her a hero. Don’t be embarrassed to talk about your passion for your work and share some of the highlights and disappointments.

8. Understand the Limits, Purpose and Potential of Different Media

Print is a reflective media, radio imaginative. Television is visual and visceral, blogs are individualistic, listservs are collective and cumulative, tweets are ADD. So are many of us journalists while scientists tend to be more OCD.

OK, forget that last crack. Media differ even within these very broad categories. Talking to a BBC science presenter is different than appearing on a cable news panel where the producers might be more interested in confrontation than science. Part of your responsibility is to understand media well enough to be able to get your message out in a range of different settings.

A good book to read is ‘A Scientist’s Guide to Talking With The Media: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ by Richard Hayes and Daniel Grossman

9. Practice Peer Networking On-Line and in Person

A slogan of the last century was ‘think globally, act locally.’ But if we’re to deal with the collapse of living systems today we have to think and act locally, regionally and globally simultaneously. That would probably not be possible without the communications tools we now have on our laptops and other devices.

All the Listservs, online science sites and email strings can sometimes get disconcerting. While mass deletion may be the occasional default position we choose, we also need to better manage our peer networking. Places like the IUCN Summit are the perfect venues to put a human face to the peers you’ve been communicating with online. It might also be a worthwhile opportunity to meet the people behind the IUCN Science and Knowledge Unit that connects over 10,000 individuals and 1,200 organizations. Among its resources IUCN maintains the Red List of Threatened Species and is consolidating the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems.

10. Knowledge is the First Step to Solutions

The knowledge you’ve worked through your career to develop is precious. What you know you have a responsibility to share. If our Planet is at a Crossroads, we each have to make sure we veer or species towards the road of sustainability and renewed biodiversity that will protect all of our communities, both human and wild.

Recommended – Half Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson

Categories: Conservation, Scientific Adventure, Uncategorized

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