Coping with a Hyperstory: Lessons from a Biologist’s Ordeal

19 07 2010

Being inundated by a “hyperstory” that attracts white-hot media attention can be disconcerting and even traumatizing for researchers used to the

Samantha Joye

Samantha Joye coped with a tidal wave of media

relative anonymity of the laboratory and the seminar room.  The best recent example is that of University of Georgia biologist Samantha Joye’s experience when her research revealed the presence of underwater oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill. Her communication response, and that of the university’s news service, offers lessons in how scientists and their institutions should—and should not—handle a hyperstory.  Joye’s research and experience with the media were covered in a July 2, 2010, Science Magazine article by Erik Stokstad. I should emphasize that my critique of this case is in no way meant as a criticism of the competence or professionalism of Joye or the university’s news service. Nobody who has not found themselves inundated by a hyperstory could possibly get everything right the first time in terms of communications. Also, I could not know the politics, and organizational and resource limitations, that would affect the university’s communication response.

With those caveats in mind, first the apparent missteps:

  • According to the Science article when Joye first recognized the existence of the underwater plume, she tipped off New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, who wrote a story that was published on May 15. Giving such an exclusive might seem logical to a media-naive scientist, since a Times story would more likely be accurate. But it was a poor decision for two reasons: first it shut out the huge cadre of other media covering the story, which invariably generates ill feelings and legitimate charges of unfairness; and second such an exclusive means that the scientist is at the total mercy of what one reporter decides to write. Instead, Joye should have first notified the university news service, worked with its science PIO to come up with a comprehensive statement and press kit, and held a news conference. The news conference could have included audio and even video teleconference feeds to enable reporters worldwide to participate.
  • When the inevitable flood of media calls began, Joye simply unplugged her phone, according to the Science article—an unwise move in terms of communication. Far more effective would have been to simply change her voice message to refer reporters to the news service, where calls would be answered, background information provided, and her response organized. The message also could have included reference to a Web site which would have contained a comprehensive set of materials on her research, her findings, and her plans.
  • The university has created a page covering Joye’s work, but it is minimalist. The page does include such information as a notice of media briefings, a podcast of a June news conference, and Joye’s Congressional testimony. However, it does not include other useful content such as  a gallery of publication-quality photos of Joye and her work, and links to news stories in such publications as the  Christian Science MonitorScience’s ScienceInsider column, the Wall St. Journal, or Stokstad’s Science article. It does not even include a  link to Joye’s laboratory site or to a three-part background video produced by the university that as of this writing is available on the university’s home page. Ironically, the NSF’s release on its grant to Joye (which for some reason is provided as a pdf file on the university news service page, rather than as a link) does offer a set of images produced by Joye. Generally, the news service page does not reflect a new understanding of such institutional Web sites, which is that they no longer merely serve the media, but the public directly. This new mission influences their design to be more than simple link lists, but full-fledged news sites with a visual design quality rivaling commercial media sites.

However, there were also positive steps taken by Joye and the news service that should be emulated:

Although the researchers did include a videographer on their cruise, who produced the video series, they could also have embedded a public information officer, as discussed in this chapter of Working with Public Information Officers . Such an embedded PIO could produce blog posts, news releases, photos, and videos. At the least, Joye could designate one of her team members to act as an information officer, who with some training by communicators could produce such material.

Coping with a hyperstory is challenging enough with plenty of preparation, but the instant hyperstory—as was the case with Joye’s research—can be a nightmare. However, by developing a general communication plan for handling crises and hyperstories, and adopting an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to managing them, communicators can make such events reflect well on both the researcher and the institution.

Researchers, Do You Need Communication Training? Some Answers:

16 03 2010

In Explaining Research, I strongly recommend that scientists and engineers consider communication training. To give a better idea of the nature and benefits of such training, I asked an expert—Carol Schadelbauer, Vice President, Health & Science Advocacy at Burness Communications—to address questions researchers typically ask about the process. Carol is director of the Burness Health & Science Advocacy Institute, which has successfully enhanced the communication skills of  many hundreds of scientists and health professionals. I think you’ll find her answers a terrific guide:

I give seminars all the time, and I teach undergraduate classes. Why would I need communication training?

Experience teaching or giving seminars is both a blessing and a curse. It means you’re probably comfortable speaking to others (including large groups), which is a hurdle that many have to overcome.  The curse comes from the fact that you are used to a “captive” audience that is already interested in your work—in great detail!  The structure of classroom teaching lends itself to “lectures” not to “the bottom line.”  Opportunities to speak with media or decision makers almost never last as long as you’d like and rarely follow the path you expect.

Excellent communications training should refine the all-too-rare skill of describing your work and its importance in a concise, effective and memorable way. You’ll learn that audience matters and must be identified before you prepare messages. But how do your messages stand out above the noise of the barrage of news, advertising and requests? Your job is to make your work and your message rise above this cacophony and motivate people with power, resources and a platform to act. Training enables you to do this and helps you be prepared for the unexpected.

I don’t talk to the media very much. Would training still help me?

Whether you’re talking with reporters, policymakers, funders, stakeholders, the public or your grandmother or brother, this type of experience is not to be missed. Learning to be memorable with impact is a valuable life lesson that can have a powerful effect on so many people. Adding clarity and a sense of urgency to your work will engage a whole new cadre of supporters, allies and even champions.  Perhaps more importantly, communications skills can also teach you how to proactively engage with media. After all, if you aren’t out there communicating the importance of your work, who will be? And more importantly, will they be doing so accurately?

What do training sessions typically consist of?

Trainings teach what to say and how to say it. They teach how to stay in control and not let the interviewer or questioner take over. Most importantly, they teach you how to be impactful, and if necessary, persuasive in any important situation.

Trainings through the Burness Health & Science Advocacy Institute range from a few hours to four days to a several-week course and are designed for health professionals, researchers, scientists, students and a host of other types of advocates.  They are designed to be as engaging and practical as possible. Our whole goal is to equip you to be as memorable as possible. We work with large and small groups and individuals. We often use cameras to focus on delivery skills and hone in on messages. We role play with one-on-one interviews, talk shows, remote interviews, policymaker meetings, testifying before legislative committees, and even mock cocktail parties.

What are some of the main communication problems or misconceptions you see in people you’re training?

What we love about researchers is that they have a passion for their work that is infectious. However, one of the biggest challenges is that more often than not, we see incredibly passionate and articulate researchers assume the role of a serious and often detached academic when they meet with reporters, policymakers and other stakeholders.  They are compelled to be boring because of fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing; fear that their peers will think less of them; fear that the reporter will take things out of context. The best way to avoid this is to ask these questions in preparation for an interview:  Why did I go into this field of work?  Why am I driven toward this scientific discovery? Humanizing you and your science by opening your audience up to your passions is a highly effective tool that results in immediate engagement with your audience, and instant credibility. Be yourself and have fun.

One other area stands out among researchers and health experts: They love process. But the media does not. It takes “process” to do science—from hypothesis, to methodology, to results to conclusion. Reporters, policymakers and most everyone really just want the bottom line. What happened?  What were your results?  And also, what does this mean to me? Why should I care about this right now? We tell folks to obsess about accuracy (always be honest!), but let go of precision. Forget the details in between. And please leave your jargon at the door! Use simple, vivid words!

How do I know when I’m “trained?”

The most common feedback we get at the end of a training session is this: “I wish I had this training years ago.”  Or, “Graduates students need this. Early-career professionals need this. Senior researchers need this!” Like any skill, there is no point at which you’re “done” learning. And this stuff takes practice and lots of it. But you’ll know when you’re ready for an interview or important meeting or presentation if you’ve adequately prepared messages, and drilled yourself (or asked someone to drill you) on the toughest questions you imagine you’d ever get. As one broadcast journalist has said, if an intelligent 12-year-old could understand what you’ve said, then you’re ready!

How have others found the training useful?

We’re lucky to have a chance to track some of those we’ve trained by coaching them after their trainings. We can put their training skills into practice. Some have increased confidence in their abilities to do media interviews and have done so. Others have advocated for increased funding with state and federal policymakers with success. Some have convinced a donor to provide the seed money for a new project. Some found their voice by using persuasive skills and memorable words to move their field’s leadership in a new direction—one that may impact and benefit patients and their families. One doctor told us that the training “set me on a path I couldn’t have imagined.  [He] will use these skills forever.”

What resources do you recommend to help me learn more about communications?

There are a lot of great books on message, communications skills and more, including Explaining Research by Dennis. Another that comes to mind is Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, which gives great real-life examples and tips for communicating clear ideas that are memorable!

But the most important thing to do is be a student of the media and of messages. What quotes and messages worked and didn’t work on television, in print and on radio? Why? What would you have done differently? This is a great daily exercise to develop your communications skills. Occasionally you may want to take the “bar stool test,” once described to us by one of our trainees. Sit down next to someone on a swiveling stool, and if they swivel their stool away from you after you start talking about your work, you’ll need some more practice!

Our Burness Institute blog, “Above the Noise”, attempts regularly to “be a student” of the good and bad of communications we read, hear and see every day.  Check it out.

The Seismic Changes in Science Communication: “Radio In Vivo” Interview

4 03 2010

I was interviewed about the extraordinary changes facing science communication and about Explaining Research, on the science radio program Radio In Vivo, WCOM-FM, on March 3, 2010.

The discussion with host Ernie Hood explored the new pitfalls and opportunities facing scientists, public information officers and journalists in communicating  research to important audiences—colleagues, potential collaborators in other disciplines, officers in funding agencies and foundations, donors, institutional leaders, corporate partners, students, legislators, family and friends, and the public.

“Am I Making Myself Clear?” Absolutely!

12 10 2009

Cornelia Dean’s new book Am I Making Myself Clear?: a Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public does a great serviceamimakingmyselfclear to scientists, as well as journalists and the public. For one thing, it offers a concise guide for scientists to public communication from one of the country’s most distinguished science writer-editors. Dean brings to the book her extensive experience at arguably the world’s premier newspaper for science coverage, The New York Times.

Dean makes a compelling case for scientists’ involvement in public issues, declaring that “if they participated more in the public life of our nation, if they dropped their institutional reticence and let their voices be heard beyond realms of scholarly publication, they could … inject a lot of rationality into our public debates.”

Her chapters on the nature of the news business and the worsening state of science journalism not only help scientists understand what is an alien realm to most of them. Dean also offers a valuable inside look at the thinking process of a professional communicator wrestling with how to responsibly communicate hot-button scientific issues. For example, she writes how she developed a concise statement on the issue of evolution: “I eventually worked out the wording that allows me to sum up the situation, I believe accurately: there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth. I use this language often when I write about evolution. But I am criticized for it. On some Web sites, creationists call it ‘Cornelia’s Creed.’”

The book also offers a wealth of insightful journalists’ tips on working with an editor, interviewing subjects, writing op eds, crafting letters to the editor, working with editorial boards, and writing accessibly about science. My favorite writing tip: “when writing in English, a language derived from German, strive to use words with German roots in preference to words with Latinate roots. Talk about cats not felines, or water that is safe to drink rather than potable. Don’t inhale and respond, take a breath and answer.” Also valuable is her perspective on how to effectively and responsibly work with public relations people to disseminate news of one’s research findings.

Her chapter covering the bumpy road from print to online journalism offers readers a cautionary road map charting the hazards, warning that

online journalism is developing standards that differ, sometimes wildly, from what some journalism scholars call “the discipline of verification,” a hallmark of the mainstream media. That discipline can give way to a “journalism of assertion” in which people post, often anonymously, erroneous, defamatory, vulgar, or mindless observations that would rarely, if ever, gain attention at a respectable news outlet.

And for those scientists contemplating writing a popular book, Dean offers the pithiest piece of advice I’ve ever encountered on the subject: “Don’t think about writing a book unless you really cannot help yourself.” If, indeed, you cannot help yourself, Dean’s guidance on navigating the publishing world and working with a collaborator are invaluable.

No scientist should consider plunging into the messy arenas of the courtroom or Congress—testifying as an expert in court, or before a congressional committee—without reading Dean’s chapters on those subjects. Her clear explanations of the pitfalls and techniques in such endeavors will no doubt rescue many scientists from missteps and make them far more effective.

It is fortunate that the publishers decided to make the book’s cover a distinctive orange, so that it will be easily locatable on the great many scientists’ bookshelves where it deserves to reside.

“Dueling” Monkey Robot Videos Offer a Lesson in Communicating Research

8 10 2009

It’s rare that I get a chance to show vividly how  an ill-advised media policy can compromise communication of a piece of research. But two videos about development of brain-machine interfaces enable me to do just that. One video, below,  covers a story about Duke University neurobiologists using the brain activity of a monkey to control real-time walking patterns in a robot in Japan.

And a second video covers a story about University of Pittsburgh researchers using a monkey’s brain signals to control a robot arm, to enable the monkey to feed itself.

As you watch these videos, judge which one you think most effectively portrays the research and why. And guess which video received the most media play. (Although the research advances were both reported in 2008, I’ve just had a chance to do the analysis of their coverage.)

Both the Duke and the Pittsburgh research efforts are certainly important and newsworthy. But I think it’s fair to say that the Duke achievement–given the complexity of the walking behavior involved–is the greater of the two.

However, because Duke’s media policy severely limited what its video could portray, its research received far less media attention than the Pittsburgh story. Duke strictly prohibits any photos or videos depicting the use of animals in research, even if those images are central to the story. Thus, the Duke video could only feature an animation of the monkey on the treadmill, and not footage of the actual experiment. Not only was the animation primitive, but it was factually misleading. The “monkey” is anatomically inaccurate, looking more chimpanzee-like than rhesus-like. And the animation shows no evidence of electrodes attached to the monkey, leaving viewers to wonder how the signals got from the monkey’s brain to the robot.

In sharp contrast, the Pittsburgh video shows dramatic footage of the real monkey operating the robot arm to feed itself. The researchers cleverly  avoided complaints from animal rightists by obscuring the brain electrodes behind a piece of equipment. Also, it’s clear from the monkey’s behavior that it is perfectly comfortable.

Duke’s use of animation was also counterproductive in that it raised the most doubts in viewers, with one viewer commenting “This looks like BS. I’m not saying that it is, but the monkey isn’t real, the robotics footage is looped and shows feet never making solid contact with the ground, this may as well be fake as the stupid monkey.”

So, which video received the most coverage? Pittsburgh’s by far. Besides being featured on network news shows, it was posted on Web sites including BBC, PBS Online NewsHourNPR’s Science Friday, and Reuters. A subsequent video was also featured on the National Geographic Web site.  By contrast, the Duke footage showed up only on Reuters.

The New York Times did use videos in its Web coverage of both the Duke story and the Pittsburgh story, but the latter online story was made much more compelling by inclusion of its accompanying video.

But does it really matter that Pittsburgh’s research received more media attention than Duke’s? Yes, it does, given that media coverage reaches a wide range of key decision-makers, from donors to funding agency administrators, to legislators. And it matters because such media coverage also reaches prospective collaborators and other important scientific constituencies. Finally, increased media coverage influences scientific citations, as I discuss in the introduction to Explaining Research.

Duke’s refusal to depict animal research also has a broader moral and ethical dimension. In doing so, the university is evading its responsibility as a major research institution to emphasize the importance of animal research to medical advance—ironically aiding the cause of animal rights groups that oppose such research.

As an aside, an informal poll I did of major research universities found a broad spectrum of policies on depicting animals in research; but Duke was very much at the extreme end of that spectrum in its outright prohibition.

The broad lesson, I think, to be drawn from this case is that administrators need to get beyond their own expediency—perhaps even timidity—in setting communication policy. They should consider their broader responsibilities to their institution, its researchers, and science as a whole.

How Caveats Evaporate: Facebook Study Offers a Cautionary Tale

22 08 2009

Ohio State research communicator Earle Holland has written an insightful account in the online Columbia Journalism Review recounting media misrepresentation of a pilot study by an OSU graduate student that showed a link between Facebook usage and lower grades.

The basic problem was that, while the study found only a correlation between the two, The Sunday Times of London published a story declaring a causative link, saying that “the website is damaging students’ academic performance.” This erroneous report set the tone for much subsequent inaccurate coverage.

OSU did everything right in issuing the news release. It quotes the researcher up front saying that “We can’t say that use of Facebook leads to lower grades and less studying–but we did find a relationship.”

And further down in the news release: “There may be other factors involved, such as personality traits, that link Facebook use and lower grades,” she said. . . . “It may be that if it wasn’t for Facebook, some students would still find other ways to avoid studying, and would still get lower grades.  But perhaps the lower GPAs could actually be because students are spending too much time socializing online.”

While the reporters who confused correlation and causation are the obvious culprits in the miscommunication, some people criticized the university news office for issuing a news release on such a preliminary study. But that criticism misses an important point: that the poster session was at a meeting of a major scientific society. And since the study was on a hot topic–social media–it was likely to be noticed by reporters and stories written anyway.

So, the most responsible course of action by the news office was to prepare a carefully written news release that got the facts straight, put them in context, and protected the researcher against claims of misrepresentation.

One clear lesson here is that when in doubt, the best course is to produce a news release on a piece of research that clearly explains the findings and spells out caveats. A second lesson is to assume that those caveats may well be ignored, so you and your public information officer should carefully monitor coverage to respond to inaccuracies.