Science Framing needs a business plan
Chad Orzel, recently tenured Physics professor, has a suggestion on the framing science debate.
What’s needed is really to fight fire with fire. In a battle for public opinion, professional PR flacks are going to beat professional scientists nine times out of ten, so why let it come down to that sort of uneven battle? What we need is not so much to train individual scientists to be mediocre PR flacks, but to get the scientific community to employ professional PR flacks. There are people out there who manipulate public opinion for a living, and they’ll work for anyone. Find them, hire them, and listen to them.
Actually he only gets the idea half right. The ‘PR flacks’ are only good at generating the initial talking points. Disseminating the information, getting it into the hearts and minds of the targeted population is something altogether different. And even that isn’t the first step.
Chad is still thinking inside the box. His idea needs to be broadened and refined. While it is generally understood that journalism, political science, and law majors will write op-ed pieces to local newspapers, this isn’t something assumed or even encouraged in science majors. If anything it is shunned.
This is probably the initial population to be encouraged to speak out. Not only the current crop of science students but the scientifically literate public must be called to the cause. They must be encouraged to take part in the public discourse and more importantly, they must be given a coherent message which is where the PR flacks come in.
Matt Nesbit has already described the prototype for this kind of behavior.
Consider how the Bush campaign incorporated opinion-leaders into its successful 2004 re-election bid. According to former Bush advisor Matthew Dowd, a co-author of Applebee’s America, strategists sent an email questionnaire to their national list of seven million volunteers, asking four specific questions about how willing volunteers were to write letters to the editor, talk to others about politics, forward emails, or attend public meetings. Based on answers to these questions, the Bush team segmented out two million “navigators” or opinion-leaders.
Contacted on a weekly basis by email and phone, these two million navigators were asked to talk up the campaign to friends, write letters to the editor, call in to local radio programs, or attend public meetings staying on message at all times with nationally coordinated talking points. For the Bush campaign, these supporters became grassroots information brokers, passing on interpersonally to fellow citizens the themes featured in political ads, news coverage, and in presidential stump speeches.
But there is a third element missing in the puzzle. You still need a way to fund the effort. You have to hire the PR flacks to generate the frames. The frames or perhaps more importantly the wording needs to be tested in various markets. (Sad but true). You need to be able to fund distribution systems which can be as simple as a web page but probably need more, t-shirts, give-aways. Speakers going around the country giving motivational talks, navigators congregating to learn how to speak and write more effectively. Those pesky little people writing the weekly mail and making the weekly phone call. None of this is completely free and in order to create an effective system, you need large numbers of people.
Look back at the above quote. The Republicans managed two million “navigators.” While I don’t think science needs quite that many, it still needs ‘lots.’ And remember, science doesn’t have a Republican base to work from.
It is not just the scientists who need to speak on message. The message needs to be carried on a far broader front. The scientists simply need to understand what frame is being used and fill that with the appropriate facts. The frame is the button to start the iPod, it’s not the song.
Where do you start? Who do you recruit? To be honest, what you need is a business plan and a way to sell it to a few key fundraisers – ideally high-profile, low controversy science lovers. Tom Hanks comes to mind.
Then you need to get the PR flacks and the scientists to sit down and determine the topics and the timeline. After that it is a matter of generating converts, grad students, interested parties, and perhaps most powerful – the occasional SAHM with a science degree and a will to make a difference. (Or SAHMs without science degrees – Hi Trees ;-)
You need to set up an organization designed to acquire the current techniques and talking points from the dark side and be able to feed that back into the PR chain. On the other side a system to get the information into the hands of the scientists, bloggers, op-ed writers, and talk-show guests who then carry the message to the public.
Sigh. Don’t you just love political activism?