Communicating Science for Good UF center pioneering tactics for creating change

By Joseph Kays

Frank Karel was an enthusiastic science communicator whose early newspaper reporting at the Miami Herald included John Glenn’s historic flight. He went on to develop ways for philanthropies like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation to share stories about the work their grant recipients were doing in health care and many other fields.

To carry on that work after he was gone, the 1961 graduate of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications set up an endowed chair at his alma mater to professionalize and promote the field.

Karel died in 2009, and while he couldn’t have known that someone he had trained and mentored at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would become the first Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications, he certainly would have approved.

Over the last eight years, Ann Christiano has taken Frank Karel’s vision and grown it into a movement at UF and beyond, promoting the science behind effective communications to university researchers, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, policy makers at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and leaders at dozens of other institutes and agencies around the world.

Earlier this year, the college launched the Center for Public Interest Communications, the nation’s first center dedicated to developing, translating and applying the science of strategic communication to drive social change.

“Educating students who want to make a difference in their world is a cornerstone of our college,” says Dean Diane McFarlin. “The center is the culmination of many years of curriculum development and community building in this nascent discipline."

Among the center’s many initiatives:

  • A conference on social change communications aptly named “frank” that has become a go-to event every February for change-makers from across the political and social spectrum around the world.
  • The Strategic Communications Academy developed with UF Human Resources that is giving UF scholars and leaders the tools they need to communicate their work with a wide variety of audiences, from the media to Congress.
  • New courses that are not available at any other university that have introduced hundreds of students to a field they likely didn’t even know existed when they arrived at UF. Many have gone on to work in the field at social change organizations like Net Impact and Campaign for Tobacco Free Florida, and at leading public interest communications PR agencies.

UF psychology Associate Professor Lisa Scott has seen firsthand how the strategies the center’s team teaches can be leveraged to achieve goals. Scott has been making groundbreaking discoveries in her lab about how babies learn, but the only people who knew about them were her colleagues who read the scientific journals in which she published.

Psychology Associate Professor Lisa Scott tracks the brain function of a colleague’s daughter while reading her stories.

So she signed up for the Strategic Communications Academy, where her final project was to develop an article for The Conversation, a news site that provides opportunities for academics to share their research with the general public. Nearly 350,000 people have read the article in dozens of publications, online and in print, including the Washington Post, Scientific American and, most importantly for her goals, Parents magazine.

“Ann and her colleagues taught us the importance of storytelling and connecting with your audience,” Scott says. “They gave me valuable insights about communication strategies and techniques that I now use in my own teaching and mentoring.”

Civil engineering Associate Professor David Prevatt shared Scott’s frustration about getting his message out. Prevatt is a structural engineer who studies how to make buildings more resilient in the face of major wind events like hurricanes and tornadoes.

In a recent talk, he showed an image of a neighborhood surrounding a school in Moore, Oklahoma, taken from the air days before a tornado hit. Then he showed a second photo taken after the tornado, when 40 percent of the buildings in the tornado’s path were leveled.

“What’s so frustrating to me about this is that I had published a paper just a few years earlier that – had it been applied — would have saved many of those houses,” he says. “But, that’s not even the thing that frustrates me most.”

And then he showed a paper of his from the 1990s, that said the same thing, and another from a different scholar that had been published in the 1970s on a similar topic, then another published in 1968, and then one published 121 years ago.

“This knowledge isn’t making its way from the journals into the design plans of builders,” he says. “We have known for more than 100 years how to prevent this kind of damage. I can’t just keep turning out more research papers. I have to be an advocate for the truth.”

Based on lessons he learned working with Christiano, Prevatt has begun developing an app to help home buyers better evaluate houses for resiliency and make minor modifications that could save their lives and livelihoods.

Changing Narratives

Historically, academic training has discouraged scientists from simplifying – critics would say oversimplifying – explanations of their research so that anyone besides other scientists can understand it.

“There is a narrative that scientists are not good communicators. That they’re content to tuck their work away in journals and share it at sparsely attended academic conferences,” Christiano says. “They are counseled not to invest time in working with the news media because they will be misunderstood and misquoted and will never be admitted to the National Academy of Sciences. I don’t believe that narrative.”

Center for Public Interest Communications leaders Annie Neimand, Ellen Nodine and Ann Christiano.

Christiano argues that in an era where the Pew Research Center has found that just 40 percent of Americans report strong trust in scientists, and researchers at MIT report that fake news on Twitter can travel as much as six times faster than the truth, it’s more important than ever for scientists to effectively communicate their findings.

Through the center’s own Journal for Public Interest Communications and publications like the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christiano and Research Director Annie Neimand argue for a more scientific approach to advocacy. They have taken the latest insights from cognitive, behavioral and social science and applied them to communications in new and unique ways.

In their article “Stop Raising Awareness Already” – one of the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s most-read pieces ever – the two say “Too many organizations concentrate on raising awareness about an issue … without knowing how to translate that awareness into action.”

“For those working on a cause they care about, the first instinct is often to make sure that as many people as possible are aware of the problem,” they write. “But is it ever enough for people to simply know more about something? If, for example, the goal were to raise awareness among new parents of the importance of immunizing their children, you wouldn’t be satisfied if parents were simply aware. You’d want to be sure that they were also having their children immunized for the right diseases at the right age.”

In a follow-up to that article – “The Science of What Makes People Care” – that appeared on the cover of the Stanford journal in September, Neimand and Christiano laid out a plan for moving from awareness to action.

“The corporate sector has long taken advantage of science to market products from tobacco to alcohol to dish detergent. For the most part, the social sector has not made the same shift,” writes Neimand, who is also a doctoral candidate in sociology. “Social service organizations may conduct their own research through focus groups and surveys, but most lack the resources to root their communications strategies in published academic research. When people working on behalf of social causes have rooted their strategy in science, intentionally or not, they have tended to be highly successful.”

The article outlines five principles based on science for communicating more effectively:

  • Join the Community – People engage and consume information that affirms their identities and aligns with their deeply held values and worldview, and avoid or reject information that challenges or threatens them. This requires advocates to move beyond a focus on building and disseminating a message to stepping into the world of their target community.
  • Communicate in Images – Concrete, visual language engages the visual and emotional areas of our brains.
  • Invoke Emotion with Intention – Research tells us that people are really good at avoiding information for three reasons: It makes them feel bad; it obligates them to do something they do not want to do; or it threatens their identity, values, and worldview. Although people avoid information that makes them feel bad, they are attracted to things associated with pleasant emotions.
  • Create Meaningful Calls to Action – Effective calls to action follow three rules: They are specific; the target community sees how the solution will help solve the problem; and they are something the community knows how to do.
  • Tell Better Stories – Storytelling is the best tool we have for helping people care about issues. People are more likely to remember information they get in narrative form. Stories have the unique power to convey new perspectives and thereby lower counter-arguing, increase empathy, and capture and maintain people’s attention.

“People fail to act not because they do not have enough information, but because they don’t care or they don’t know what to do,” the two conclude. “If you want people to get on board, you have to make them care, and you have to show them how they can make a difference.”

Their approach to advocacy clearly resonates at places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Scenes from the 2018 frank conference.

Christiano, Neimand and Matt Sheehan, the college’s director of stories and emerging platforms, gave a “science of story-building” presentation for Gates Foundation staff and a public event at Seattle’s Gates Foundation Discovery Center that drew 145 people on a rainy day in December and had more than 900 views on Facebook Live.

“We love science at the Gates Foundation,” says Senior Communications Officer Anne Martens. “The Science of Story-Building event drew a significant crowd, and Ann and her team enthralled the audience with a scientific approach to communications, giving people evidence-based tools to move hearts and minds for the public good.”

Scientists who embrace their roles as communicators are onto something, Christiano says. Data from a 2017 Pew Research Center study show that while the public’s trust in scientists is complex, public trust in scientists as sources of information is higher than it is for many other groups in society, including industry leaders, the news media and elected officials.

“In a moment when it feels that science and the truth are under siege, no one is better positioned to address the challenge than scientists themselves.”


John Jernigan

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