At the heart of all effective science communication is achieving a good understanding of the people you are communicating with.

This is true whether you are giving a presentation to a group of farmers, sending a media release to the financial media, or involving citizens in your research.

We think this is so important that the theme of our March newsletter is: Understand Who.

As usual, we welcome your feedback via Facebook, Twitter or email.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam

Jenni MetcalfeSarah Cole (newsletter editor), Jane Ilsley, Melina Gillespie and guest contributor Toss Gascoigne



Identify who you want to communicate with

By Jenni Metcalfe

When identifying people to communicate with, there is often talk of strategies aimed at ‘stakeholders’, ‘target groups’ or ‘audiences’. Many scientists and communicators also want to get to ‘the general public’.

It is difficult to visualise any of these groups clearly. That means that your communication with a vaguely defined group of ‘stakeholders’ will likely not connect with many of them, because their specific perceptions, concerns and communication needs may also be vague to you.

And talk of ‘targets’ and ‘audiences’ presumes one-way communication, where you [the expert scientist or science communicator] are sending messages to people you believe need that information. This can risk valuable opportunities for dialogue and participatory communication being ignored.

The first step in understanding the people you communicate with is to clearly define who they are in such a way that others can immediately visualise who you’re talking about.

For example, perhaps you want to communicate with:

  • families living in low socio-economic suburbs in Brisbane
  • local council staff responsible for infrastructure maintenance along coastal NSW
  • Adelaide schoolteachers responsible for organising museum visits
  • political advisors to members of parliament with some involvement in Indigenous affairs.

Once you have a clearly defined, specific group of people in mind, you can then start to properly understand their perceptions, concerns and communication needs.

Image: mickrh



Who do you really have to communicate with?

By Toss Gascoigne

Too often senior people summon a communication officer and order a new communication campaign. “Design a brochure,” they say – a move destined to fail. It considers neither what the ‘stakeholders’ (defined as people who fund the work or use the work) want, nor how they want to receive news.

Peter Cullen, legendary figure of water science and former President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (now Science and Technology Australia), had a great technique for working out his communication strategies.

While director of the Freshwater Ecology CRC, he made a list of ‘the Essential Hundred’. In other words: Which people were crucial to the effectiveness of the Centre and really had to know about its work?

His list included scientists, funders, politicians, community representatives and parliamentarians.

The next step was to establish their communication preferences. Who wanted a personal briefing? Who preferred to be kept up to date with an email alerting them to web updates? A printed and mailed newsletter? Who wanted invitations to workshops or seminars? Who wanted to read regular stories in mainstream or specialist media?

His focus was on the people with whom he wished to communicate.

Cullen ended up being summoned to the then–Prime Minister Howard’s office. He sat down, and was given one simple instruction: “Tell me everything I need to know about water,” said Mr Howard.

It’s no coincidence that billions flowed into remediation of the Murray–Darling Basin later that year. But then, Cullen was a class act.
Peter Cullen
Image: Peter Cullen Trust



Signs you haven’t thought about your audience enough

By the Econnect team

Where do you draw the line in ‘thinking about who to communicate with’? No one has endless time to create a perfect communication plan. When do you stop, and how much planning is enough?

Unfortunately, there’s no exact answer.

But what we can tell you are warning signs that indicate you might need to work more on understanding your target people.

STOP and think more if you:

  • have a generic workshop/training session with set content you want to get through, irrespective of your audience. Consider: specifically adapting your content for the people there on the day, like we do in our workshops.
  • find many responses to a survey are the same, or you have a lot of ‘other’ or ‘n/a’ responses – usually because the questions do not have enough or the right type of answers to suit the audience. Consider: adding/changing answer options to elicit variety in the information you receive.
  • send a media release to all national media outlets, even though the messages are only relevant to – for example – rural communities in south-east Queensland. Consider: rewriting it for different sub-sections of media, or sending only to relevant outlets.
  • know that you want to make a website/brochure to get your messages out, regardless of what your audience wants. Consider: surveying or interviewing to find out how those people usually look for that type of information.
  • model your website based on your organisation’s structure [controversial, we know!]. It has all the information that an organisation could possibly want to put on there, but users can’t easily find contact names or details, or any other specific information they’re looking for. Consider: basing your website on tasks – things people want to get done – instead of information you can give them.
  • hold a consultative meeting on a controversial issue where, say, a government representative speaks to the group but only allows 5 minutes for questions or discussion. Consider: that it’s not consultation that you’re doing!
  • begin a presentation with this real-world quote that Jenni heard once: “What I am about to present is pretty turgid. In fact, it’s boring, so I don’t blame you if you go to sleep. Or perhaps you want to go to another session? I’ve just used an old presentation for this talk, so, um, yeah, it’s boring and I don’t blame you if you don’t listen…”

seminarImage: George Miller



Strategic insights from ‘inside’ people when planning communication

By Melina Gillespie

When we develop a communication strategy for an organisation, we always want to emphasise the ‘who’.

The ‘who’ not only includes those external people the strategy will be targeting, but also those who will play a role in making the strategy work.

These people can include managers, researchers, communicators, and even people outside the organisation with a vested interest or an expert opinion – for example, collaborating partners.

Once we have identified these people, we like to do in-depth interviews with them to identify their aims and perspectives. This simultaneous focus on internal communication helps us to fully understand what the communication issues are and how the strategy is going to benefit the organisation as a whole.

Questions we ask include:

  • What do you think this communication plan should seek to achieve?
  • Who do you think the main target groups are?
  • What do you think the messages should be for each group?
  • What risks or issues do you think need to be considered?
  • How do you think these might be overcome?

I still get a thrill out of getting to know the interviewees for each new strategy, and finding out exactly what they each expect the strategy to cover. Their feedback helps us to develop a strategy that focuses on the commonalities, as well as the insights from each person. The interview process ensures we identify the major aims of our clients, as well as highlighting important areas or issues for further investigation and discussion.

Importantly, the process creates shared ownership of the final communication strategy. It also means everyone in (and outside) the organisation knows their role and responsibility for making it work.

Building a wall - collaborationImage: Frits Ahlefeldt



Make ‘war against’ rather than ‘race against’ climate change

By Jenni Metcalfe

Scientific facts and efforts to prove those facts are unlikely to change people’s attitudes or behaviours, especially when views are polarised, science communication research shows.

Climate change is a textbook example of where such communication has failed and, despite the unanimity of the science, many remain unconvinced that human actions are playing a large part in climate change.

We can communicate about climate change more effectively if we understand the effect our messages have on various groups, according to a recent article in The Conversation. The article’s author, Rose Hendricks, says beliefs are shaped by the social groups people consider themselves to be part of, which can be based on their political, religious, or occupational affiliations.

People who are sceptical about man-made climate change have been shown to be more likely to respond to communication techniques such as:

  • metaphors about the ‘war against’ rather than the ‘race against’ climate change
  • analogies of disease causes and consequences when explaining global warming
  • messages about the climate of the past rather than those that look to the future.

However, as Hendricks points out, “there’s no one-size-fits-all frame for motivating people to care about climate change”. You need to do your own research to find out what works, or not, with the particular group of people you want to communicate with.

Image: Kurt Bauschardt



Link of the month

Are you an A, B, C or D? A major 2014 study by CSIRO segments us into 4 groups of people who see science in “very different ways”. How do you interest the disinterested? It’s about “more than blowing stuff up”, they say…