Let’s take a trip back to 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt began making informal radio addresses to the American public during the Great Depression. Never before had a U.S. President conducted regular and informal communications to the American public. The President used this format to address the public multiple times per year, and these communications were considered enormously successful, attracting more listeners than the most popular radio shows.
Now, move forward to our current President Barack Obama, who provides his addresses in both audio and video forms, and both are available online via whitehouse.gov and YouTube. The first Presidential candidate to jump into social media with both feet, President Obama connected with the American public on a new level and on a level that today many Americans prefer.
Both Presidents used the communication mediums of the time in new ways to reach the target audience. But who is the pioneer? The communicator or the technology it’s now carried on? We’ve created so many different communication methods over time – from hieroglyphics in 3000BC, to messengers on horseback, to the first electric telegraph in 1831 – the delivery method evolves while the purpose of communication remains the same.
Yet, in considering the true definition of communication – the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions or information by speech, writing or signs – only certain mediums allow for response to the message and closing the loop on communication. The true pioneering may be in harnessing the technology to make communication more effective by breaking down mass media with individualized delivery and mechanisms for feedback.
For communication professionals, effectively communicating highly technical or scientific information presents a challenge. Perhaps the only greater challenge lies in promoting public participation and productive public discourse surrounding that technical or scientific information.
With more than 15 years experience utilizing verbal and visual communication methods to share information about and encourage public participation surrounding the recently completed mission to destroy the nation’s stockpile of World War II-era chemical weapons, we eagerly attended the recent Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia of the National Academy of Sciences entitled, The Science of Science Communication.
The colloquia certainly met our expectations of bringing together some of the greatest minds from prestigious educational institutions across the country. And, in keeping with the scientific theme, the presentations included a plethora of research and complex communication models, which clearly made the case for why communication is essential to the scientific process and how difficult it is to do it effectively.
However, beyond an in-depth look at the role of media (as the primary communicator instead of a communication channel), there was little discussion on strategies or tactics for communicating with targeted audiences. Utilizing the media can prove an effective strategy. Yet, in order to effectively engage publics in the process, direct communication methods should proceed the mass communication methods. This direct communication may include direct mail letters, the formation of a citizens advisory group, building a social media presence or conducting a series of town hall meetings or information sessions complete with objective, third-party experts. The key is taking the time to communicate information to interested parties in a way that they can understand and in a format where they can provide input.
Too often, the scientific community, the scientist himself or herself, or the organization funding the research look to capitalize on a breakthrough and let the science speak for itself. They forget it’s the public who has the voice and whose excitement or fear can either propel or halt scientific and technological advances no matter how small (nanotechnology) or how far reaching (stem cell research) the implications.