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September 15, 2010
Scientific Tone Deafness Hurts
 
A post we read a while ago in the context of global warming has stayed with us in another context -- the apparent insensitivity of many scientists and engineers to public relations. That produces, in all likelihood, less than fully effective public relations in organizations headed by tone-deaf scientists or engineers.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences has a paper in pdf format, "Do Scientists Understand the Public?," on hand for downloading. The summary, about scientists and public engagement, hits home. It finds a "divide" between the two sectors.

"Scientists and the public both share a responsibility for the divide," says an Academy news release. "Scientists and technical experts sometimes take for granted that their work will be viewed as ultimately serving the public good. Members of the public can react viscerally and along ideological lines, but they can also raise important issues that deserve consideration."

Scientific issues require, says the report, "an 'anticipatory approach'. A diverse group of stakeholders -- research scientists, social scientists, public engagement experts, and skilled communicators -- should collaborate early to identify potential scientific controversies and the best method to address resulting public concerns."

There's more. But what's this sounding like? You've got it -- good communication planning done early in the emergence of a scientific issue or technical concern. 

Too often, we regret to say, technologists left to their own instincts and devices don't have time for good communications, or even awareness of their importance. A classic, if extreme, example of that was the first few days of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979. BP's gulf spill, of course, is another, much more recent, instance. (If the latter had been aware and/or respectful of the former, the latter may have gone better.)

These, it's true, were crisis communication situations, but good crisis communication begins where all other effective communication does -- with diligent planning and regard for the audiences likely to be involved. Good communication is a discipline in itself. 

Science and technology produce marvelous advances, but also involve complexities that can be alarming or frustrating. Along with the announcements, we'd urge all parties to consider the relationships involved and plan for them in advance. These, of course, are communications concerns.

Understanding doesn't come automatically, the product of elegant equations. It involves patient, respectful exchanges planned for in advance. Or, simply, an enlightened communication approach.  

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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