Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Strategic Communication and Science: Still Too Close for Comfort?

Ralph J. Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences, has an interesting column in the current issue of In Focus. Science communication, he argues, needs to explore new ways of reaching audiences that are increasingly fragmented and more difficult to reach, given our changing information environment. And his assessment is right on target.

"To do that at the Academies, we have started work on finding new ways of stimulating public interest in science. Specifically we are looking at new avenues to provide evidence-based information on select science-based topics to help educate the informed public, key opinion leaders, and other influential actors in appropriate fields."

What may raise eyebrows among some is the idea of opinion leaders in Cicerone's column. Science communicators have shied away for decades from any communication tool that could conceivably be used in marketing, political campaigning, or any other type of persuasive communication. Targeting opinion leaders, however, is just that.

The concept emerged from Paul Lazarsfeld's research in the 40s, much of which was funded by media organizations in order to understand how to better target audiences. Today, a battery of opinion leadership measures is included in most syndicated marketing surveys, such as Needham or Scarborough, and the idea has been rehashed in books like the Tipping Point and The Influentials. Most prominently, Victoria Secret uses opinion leaders or "campus ambassadors" to promote their Pink line among college students.

''There is a paradigm shift in the way that corporations are marketing to college students," said Matt Britton, a managing partner of Mr. Youth, a New York-based firm that specializes in college student marketing. ''The student ambassador tactic embraces all the elements that corporations find most effective: It's peer-to-peer, it's word of mouth, it's flexible, and it breaks through the clutter of other media. For all that, it's growing very quickly."

(Read the full article from the Boston Globe.)

This raises an interesting dilemma for science communicators. Do we want to continue to reject any element of successful communication as spin, simply because it is also being used by marketers, interest groups, or political campaigns? Or can we finally embrace the idea that strategic communication is a tool that can be used for different ends. After all, the exact same communication strategies that Apple uses to convince us to buy an iPod are also at work when Toyota promotes fuel-efficient hybrids or when local communities try to get their citizens to recycle. Strategic communication is not about outcomes. It is about understanding your audience (or rather audiences), about researching how to best reach them, and about delivering messages to them in the formats and media they prefer. And Cicerone is absolutely right. Unless we use these new tools, we will have an increasingly difficult time successfully connecting with a more and more scientifically illiterate public.