The Ideal Communication Office




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The Ideal Communication Office


Lars Lindberg Christensen


Public Information Officer for the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, Europe, the Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre/European Space Agency/European Southern Observatory


1. Introduction

Science Communication is a complex field with a tightly interwoven fabric of diverse interlinked issues ranging from product types and target groups through written and visual communication to practices of efficient workflow, distribution, promotion and advertising. There are many practical obstacles in the way of setting up a successful communication office – mostly related to the very limited funding available in Europe – and they are rarely described in the literature.


This article explores how a successful science communication office is set up in a ‘real world’ where countless practical constraints come into play. The article is split into two parts concerning respectively the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ principles of the topic. The hard principles are the idealised best practices, simpler or more theoretically based ideas that are fully realisable only in the abstract ideal world, whereas the soft principles are the crucial underlying trade secrets of a successful implementation in a complicated real world framework. Soft principles are those that really make the difference between successful and unsuccessful communication offices, but unfortunately are also the ones most difficult to generalise.


As is usual when discussing highly practical matters this article draws heavily on personal experience. For more than four years I have been privileged to work with the public communication for the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope at the “Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre”. In some senses Hubble is the ideal PR-machine, being the finest astronomical digital camera anyone can imagine, but it would not have been such a widely known high-profile project if it had not also been a meticulously planned and funded communication effort (especially in the US).


More elaborate written material about science communication can be consulted in a free web book (Christensen, 2003). This book aims to give novice science communicators a kick start into the field by summarising our results and experiences and those of others successful in the field of science communication.


2. ‘Hard principles’


2.1 Science communication

Science communication is a relatively young trade. The largest communication office I know, the Office of Public Outreach (OPO) for HST/NASA, was established in the late 1980s, the European Southern Observatory’s office in 1986, PPARC’s office in 1996 etc. So as a profession, science communication has only really existed for 15-20 years and we still have much to learn – especially in Europe.


Science communicators provide a bridge between the scientific community and the outside world. A significant fraction of our work consists of preparing ‘TV dinners of science results’ that can easily be digested by journalists, if they so wish. Journalists cannot scan the hundreds of scientific journals in existence and read the thousands of scientific papers that are published each month and extract the significant results, so communicators should act as the ‘missing link’ between scientists and journalists.


2.2 The role of the communicator

I have admired the American way of science communication since the early nineties. Their approach is fully professional, with well-funded communication offices and professional Public Information Officers. I object when I hear Europeans criticise for instance NASA’s method of science communication. The Americans are not necessarily 100% correct in their approach, but they certainly generate far better results than we do in Europe. The Americans produce their impressive results in a highly competitive system that is directly linked with funding in a tight feedback loop.


Recently I realised during discussions with people in my home country, Denmark, that, for many people there, science communication was a question of how scientists themselves interact directly with journalists. A system like this is likely to have a lot of dissatisfied players, and sure enough: scientists complain that they are not compensated for the time-consuming communication work they do, and journalists are accused of not spending enough time searching for the valuable scientific results lurking in individual universities and organisations.


A recent study by Claus Madsen from ESO (Madsen, 2003) shows that approximately 100% of the science reported in newspapers comes via press releases produced by communication offices. So, to a first approximation, the most effective way of communicating science results is via professional communicators (measured for instance in units of readers per spent man-hour communicating). Scientists and journalists are the two important start- and end-points, but the communicator is the pivotal middle-man.


Perhaps paradoxically, this does not diminish the role of the scientist, but ensures that his valuable time is used effectively in the communication process. The scientist always will, and should, remain central to the communication process as he personifies scientific progress.


2.3 The Mission Statement

Any communication office should have a clear mission statement that shows the objectives of the group, such as the generic example below:



MISSION STATEMENT

- Increase awareness of science and the scientific work process

- Increase awareness of the organisation

- Increase awareness of specific scientific projects, telescopes or missions



These objectives relate both to communication proper and to science PR or promotion. Sometimes these objectives are complementary, but conflicts of interest are not unusual.


2.4 The Skill Triangle

A communication office has many diverse tasks and needs highly skilled people in many areas. In Figure 1 the three core skills are placed at the vertices of a triangle. Any product takes a combination of these three skills – in other words a tight collaboration between the people possessing the different skills.




Figure 1: The Skill Triangle.


2.5 How to staff a communication office

Imagine having the budget necessary to hire highly skilled people for a communication office. In the US, NASA uses 1-2% of the budget depending on the method of calculation (Hanisch, 2000, and Anne Kinney, private communication). At the largest office I know, OPO at NASA, they have a staff of 42 people. In Europe funds for science communication are nowhere near matching these levels, but we are starting to see a professional attitude towards science communication and organisational promotion emerge.


Ideally a science communication office should have the following functions, either assigned to individuals, or, depending on the resources, condensed into fewer people:

  1. Head/coordinator/manager: Deals with political/strategic issues

  2. Science communicator/journalist/researcher (also known as Public Information Officer): Scientific Researcher, writer, data visualisation

  3. Graphic designer: Illustrations, image processing, layout, animations, video editing etc.

  4. Press officer: Media contact, distribution lists, promotion

  5. Educator: Educational material, teacher distribution list

  6. Internal communicator: Newsletters, annual reports, visits

  7. Technical communicator: Web master, computing/printing facilities, technical solutions

  8. Editor, proof reader: Edits and proofreads texts

  9. Secretary: Distribution lists, practical distribution etc.


2.6 How does communication flow?

One model (see Figure 2) of information flow in a science communication represents this as a funnel that decreases the information flow in each step from the scientist through the communicator to the journalist and finally to the public end-user. There are alternative routes for the information (shown as dotted lines) although these are not the ones most commonly used.




Figure 2: The communication flow.


2.7 Target groups

It is necessary to understand both the communication environment and the habits and motivations of the target groups. Communication is a highly result driven field and our customers — the 'consumers' — decide when, where, how and why our products will be 'purchased'.


In the ‘real world’ we always have to target a number of groups at once. For example, press releases have to be accessible to science journalists, general journalists, as well as decision-makers, educators and others.


Some end-target groups are reached directly via web pages and the like, and although they are not many in number they should be listed here as well:

  • The general public (end-customers): A few are reached via institutional web pages, but are in general reached via media (see below).

  • Decision-makers: Should be reached via highly targeted products

  • Other scientists: Scientists may become aware of each others’ work through press releases, web pages etc.

  • Industry: Some organisations have a strong industrial connection and also need to communicate to the industry via press releases etc.


By far the most important group of targets are the mediators:

  • Media:

    • Television: Television is one of the most powerful news media we can access.

    • News agencies/wire services: Work as outlets and distribution partners for news stories.

    • Radio

    • Newspapers: Newspapers are among the most important printed media.

    • Weekly magazines: Newsweek, Time etc.

    • Web news sites: CNN web, BBC web etc. Increasingly used by the public, but many have not proved viable and have recently closed down.

    • Science magazines/trade publications: Science Magazine, Nature, Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Science News, Astronomy Magazine, Sky & Telescope etc.

  • Other ambassadors:

    • Educators: Usually need specially designed educational material.

    • Popular books: Can have a lasting impact on readers.

    • Scientists, amateur communities: Can act as mediators or may themselves have political influence.

    • Communicators in planetaria , science centres and public observatories: A valuable group of mediators, as they can have a huge surface of contact with the public.


2.8 Products

We always have a choice between a huge number of different communication products. The art is to choose which is the most effective in a given situation. Some of the most frequently used products are:

  • Press releases

  • Video News Releases

  • Popular brochures

  • Technical brochures

  • CD-ROMs

  • Web pages

  • Educational material

  • Exhibitions

  • Press conferences

  • Press packs

  • Merchandise

  • Hands-on presentations

  • Public talks

  • Exclusives

  • Posters


2.9 The Production Chain

The chain of events that generates all communication products is extremely fragile. At each link (see Figure 3) there are numerous possible partial or total failure points, and hence a high probability that the chain will break. If the chain breaks the product will not be successful. The 7th link, Distribution, is especially sensitive. Each link should be continually optimised to ensure the smooth production of the final product.




Figure 3: The Production Chain.


3. ‘Soft principles’

‘Soft’ principles are issues that are difficult to quantify and often rely on personal experience. The ‘hard’ principles outlined above can pretty much withstand any test. Although we have not realised this everywhere in Europe, there is really not much to discuss when talking about ‘best practices’. A lot of the theory can be applied directly from the field of marketing and other issues are simply principles tried and tested in the field. The discussion really heats up when we start to discuss how to implement these ‘best practices’ in detail. Here I will stick my neck out and offer my view on what makes a communication really successful.


3.1 Flexibility and freedom

Flexibility and freedom are the two keynotes of a communication office. The staff must be able to make their own decisions and also to have some degree of economic freedom within budgetary limits. This also covers technical autonomy such as having dedicated printers, 24/7 access to toner, paper etc.


Naturally this freedom bestows a great deal of responsibility and the head of the group must be prepared to take criticism for decisions made, be prepared to admit mistakes or misjudgements and to justify decisions on a daily basis. Science communicators have to go out on a limb each day and to take the risks related to making the quick decisions that react to market needs. I sometimes say: “We make mistakes, but we never fail”, to indicate that you need to take certain risks to reach the goal.


Flexibility is a necessary component as journalists always need quick responses to meet their perpetually looming deadlines. Internally the group should be flexible enough to cover each other in cases of vacation, sickness, travel etc. This flexibility also implies the crucial availability of parts of the personnel outside normal office hours, notably to service media in other time zones.


3.2 Strategic problem-solving

The limited resources available for science communication demand strategic solutions to everyday tasks to improve the long term position of the group. This is in contrast to a fire-fighting approach to problem-solving. It is always better to think about possible long-term benefits for the customer group at large than just solving a problem for the person you have on the phone right now. Consider the usual requests for image material: assume that other journalists will have similar requests and post the images on your image archive web site instead of sending them directly to the person who requests them.


Another general piece of advice: it is often better for a fast-moving communication office to apply low-tech solutions whenever possible.


3.3 Communicator vs. scientist

The scientist and the communicator often have slightly different aims, but it is crucial that the professional communicator makes the final decision on a communication in order to maximise the outcome and to best comply with the mission statement within the limits imposed by budget requirements.


3.4 Communicator vs. manager

Political communication and journalistic communication does not always match and it is important that the communication office is not under political pressure to act in certain ways. Communicators are sometimes swamped by managerial tasks such as high-level secretarial tasks, speech-writing tasks and the like. Although these tasks are important, the following question should be used as guide: How can we reach the maximum number of people per used hour?


3.5 Centralised vs. de-centralised offices

In large organisations the dilemma of whether to locate communication efforts centrally or de-centrally is well-known. The individual solution naturally depends on local circumstances, but some general principles apply:

  • The central unit should define the mission and the general framework (design programme etc.) and should actively coordinate the work in the decentralised units.

  • The centralised unit should not necessarily enforce control over the remote units.

  • The remote units should have the specialised know-how that enables them to carry out their particular task.

  • A common respect for and understanding of the responsibilities of each group is absolutely necessary.

  • Free competition within the system is mandatory. It is not in the overall interest of the organisation to enforce an ‘artificial’ constraint on the work that ultimately prevents anyone from fulfilling the mission statement.


3.6 Optimising the workflow

A good rule of thumb for a communication office is to aim at “Doing even more with even less”. Another way of optimising the work is by applying the so-called 80-20 model: “Doing 80% of the product with 20% of the effort”.


3.7 When to promote science results?

The issue of when to ‘jump’ on a given science result and communicate it to the public is a special topic, but one close to my heart. I have at times an unfortunate tendency to communicate science results to the press and public when they are fresher than fresh and have not yet been through the peer-review process. My general advice is: don’t do it! Make sure that the science that is communicated is reliable and has at least been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal. We risk undermining our reputation if the science is not solid, and a communication office lives or dies by its reputation for reliability. This is of course just a guideline, and there may be exceptions, but always remember: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – especially when peer-reviewing is skipped!


4. Conclusions


4.1 Practical conclusions

Optimising the workflow is essential for a successful communication office.

  • The secret of a good implementation of a communication strategy lies in attention to detail. For this an overview of the entire production process (the Production Chain) is necessary.

  • The three skills in the Skill Triangle – communication, graphical and technical skills – should be integrated closely. This also means integration of images, text, illustrations and animations.

  • The normal, but almost endless iterations in the production process make a very tight collaboration between all links of the chain necessary and this can determine optimal office logistics.

  • Applying the 80/20 method will make for an optimal output in many cases.

  • Faced with the immense competition for media attention it is necessary today to target many different groups with the same communication products.


4.2 General conclusions

  • Only by funding science communication, or public outreach adequately can we make sure that that the public is informed about the major scientific advances taking place in Europe.

  • Unless we in Europe take a much more professional (perhaps even American) attitude toward science communication, the ‘conflict’ between scientist and journalist will remain. Scientists need professional assistance for their time-consuming communication work: writing text that explains advanced results in simple terms, creating fascinating and informative illustrations and communicating with the press on their terms. The secret of successful science communication lies in the details of the implementation – in the optimisation of resources and in gaining the support of scientists.

  • Despite all the attention to the tedious mechanical details above, never forget our holy goal: to captivate the attention of the younger generation by showing fascinating, mesmerising and intriguing science!


Literature

  • Christensen, L.L, “A Hands-on Guide to Science Communication” : http://www.eso.org/~lchriste/scicomm, 2003

  • Madsen, C.,Astronomy and Space Science in the European Print Media”, in “Astronomy Communication”, ed. André Heck & Claus Madsen, Kluwer, 2003

  • Hanisch, R., J., Information Handling for the Hubble Space Telescope, in “Information Handling in Astronomy”, ed. André Heck, Kluwer 2000

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