In this new series from the IABC Trend Watch Committee, communication professionals unpack industry trends for insights that you can take on-the-go.
At a Glance
What we've learned about communicating to a socially connected, attention-challenged audience doesn't equally apply when we need to raise awareness and engagement for science-related topics. Trust, credibility and consistency are more important than open rates and views.
Trend to Watch
Science communication has come under scrutiny like never before, as spotlighted by the complexity and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Changing recommendations and requirements on masking, vaccinations and public behavior
- Fears of infection, illness and death clashing with concerns over mandates and restrictions on freedom and everyday life
- The decline of trust in experts and rise of misinformation and individual points of view, aided in part by everyone having a platform on which to share their views
In the journal Public Understanding of Science, the authors of “Science Communication: A Contemporary Definition” write that science communication “aims to enhance public scientific awareness, understanding, literacy and culture” with outcomes that also include enjoyment and interest. That’s become more challenging when people want their answers to be easy and final, ideally in a scannable, digital format. Quickly retrieved, believed and bias-free.
What This Means for Communication Professionals
Traditionally, scientists, research institutions and science journalists have been sources of science information. But many internal business communicators have had to rapidly become science communicators, charged with conveying science-related messages that can have a profound impact on their audiences. It's not only about COVID-19, but also climate change, natural disasters, cybersecurity, virtual reality and even the mental health of employees.
Prior to COVID, Peter Weingart and Lars Guenther wrote "Science communication, whether internally or to the general public, depends on trust: both trust in the source and trust in the medium of communication." (Science communication and the issue of trust, JCOM-Journal of Science Communication, 2016.)
How do we strike a balance between educating audiences about science information and meeting their expectations for quick, authoritative answers in a tweet or 30-second video, particularly when the advice changes from time to time? Here are some recent learnings of science communications that can work:
- Maintain credibility with fact- and evidence-based information, but acknowledge what is known versus what is still being discovered as more data is gathered.
- Explain why things change. It's how science works. Absolute certainty isn't always possible, but current data can support a best course of action. And when new learnings emerge, responsible science reacts to new learnings with new advice, even sometimes reversing past advice.
- Take extra care to identify the specific audience and listen empathetically for cues to make the science information understandable and relatable.
- When time or space is limited, shift more of the messaging from awareness to compelling insights with clear calls to action.
- Include graphics, videos and other tools that improve understanding of the messages while avoiding sensational or oversimplified headlines or visuals.
Further Reading and Resources
Joe Bobbey is a member of the IABC Trends Watch Committee and Catalyst Subcommittee, and board member of the Greater Cincinnati chapter. He studied science communication at Boston University and recently retired as a change management consultant with extensive experience in technology implementation.