How to make your science story go viral

How can you ensure that complex, academic messages reach a wider audience?  Heidi Appel of the University of Missouri-Columbia discusses how her study was picked up and carried across traditional media news cycles. 

We researchers all wonder whether reaching a broader audience for our academic work is worth the time and effort. Here’s a recent experience that may help you decide.

On July 1 2014 I published a paper with Rex Cocroft showing that plants can identify vibrations caused by caterpillar chewing and respond with increased chemical defense. The story quickly developed a life of its own, getting picked up by newspapers internationally and by major online-only media outlets. When National Geographic put the story on their Facebook page July 10, it accumulated over 12,000 likes in four days. Within a month, over 4,300 media outlets had carried the story.

What happened to make this story go so far?

1. Our subject has broad public appeal

Plants are perennially underestimated by humans. They’re largely immobile and most of their behavior is invisibly chemical. When plants are shown to have complex responses to their environment, we are surprised. Even delighted.  This presented Rex and me with both an opportunity and a challenge – do we ignore the analogy with human senses or address it upfront in the news release to control the message? Do plants “distinguish among vibrational signals” or do they “hear”? We chose the latter.

2. A little science communication training goes a long way

Twenty years of teaching science to honors students – science majors and not – has provided me with great experience in explaining science concepts well, but it was no preparation for the simplification required for the news media. At a 2013 Becoming the Messenger workshop offered by the National Science Foundation, I gained experience and some confidence in describing my research to the general public. At several symposia on Science Communication at the AAAS Annual Meeting in 2014, I learned tips for communicating with the public and, perhaps most importantly, I listened to science news reporters describe how they find their stories.

Research can be shared with those outside academia’s ivory tower. (Roger Meissen | MU Bond Life Sciences Center, CC BY)

3. My institution encourages explaining research to the public

The Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri has its own media team that develops news releases with video content and serves as a liaison between the center’s scientists and the great science news writers at the Mizzou News Bureau. It also hosts a program to cross-train life science undergraduates and journalism students, communication workshops for faculty, and science lectures and symposia for the general public. In total, these things provided a basic understanding of the news landscape, news cycle and best practices in interacting with journalists and the public.

4. It pays to be proactive in promoting a story

At the AAAS meeting, science reporters said that they get their stories mostly from personal contacts and not from the hundreds of university news releases filling their in-boxes daily. So I emailed a brief description of our research with the subject line “plants can hear” to a New York Times reporter. I received a reply in a couple hours, and did a phone interview the next day for the Observatory Column in the Tuesday Science Section.

5. Devote time to the interview requests

This meant not only answering all requests for interviews, but answering them within a few hours. The contemporary news cycle means that significant delays in response – a day or more – can turn your newsworthy work into no news, depending on the media outlet. Often the interviews themselves could be scheduled a day or two out, or accomplished by email. Rex and I decided from the beginning to do all interviews together if possible, initially because of our complementary expertise and later because it was simply more interesting. All but NPR obliged, and as time went on we learned the necessary depth of each other’s work and found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences and even answering what had previously been questions directed to the other. Interviews became fun exchanges with each other and the journalist.

I’d do it all again

Was it worth it? You bet. My research is now more widely known in academic circles than it was before, and the media attention has opened up new professional opportunities and collaborations, as predicted. If there was an undertow of damage to my academic reputation due to receiving the media attention, I haven’t felt it yet. Capturing the public’s imagination with a research story was immensely gratifying because it broadens their appreciation of what scientists do. It was also great fun.

The ConversationThis article has been subbed/amended by IABC UK and was originally published on The Conversation and is reposted under CC BY-ND. You can read the original article here.

About the Author

Heidi Appel is Senior Research Scientist, Bond Life Sciences Center and Division of Plant Sciences atUniversity of Missouri-Columbia.

New Models & Approaches from the UK Govt Comms team

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In the spirit of open and collaborative communications, last week the Government Communication Service launched two new initiatives to support public sector comms teams – both are worthy of the attention of communicators across sectors.

These are internal approaches for government communicators, but anyone can view and download these models/approaches via the beta version of the website, which is itself a model of simple, clean design and straightforward language.

Serving audiences effectively

The Modern Communications Operating Model looks at the principles for improving communications team capability, structures, skills and resources. The aim of the MCOM is to support internal teams – and one would assume broader public sector communication teams – to structure and deliver more effective, efficient communications.

The GCS website says: “Modern teams should be seamlessly integrated, based around audience understanding, be insight and data-driven and be digitally-orientated. To create this consistently the model sets out ways of arranging communications teams for varying sizes of organisations.”

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Evaluating impact

The second initiative – the New Evaluation Framework – lists metrics and approaches to measurement of  media, marketing, digital, stakeholder engagement and internal communications.

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The GCS website notes:

“Good evaluation leads to a better understanding of what works well so we can do more of it, and of what doesn’t so we can stop doing it.”

Whether you are in public sector comms, or in the private sector, these are really useful, simple tools to use with your teams and assess your own approaches. Hats off to the Government’s comms teams for a) developing them, and b) making them broadly available.

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a global  membership association with a network of 12,000 members in more than 80  countries. We deliver on the ​Global Standard in communication through educational offerings, certification, awards programs and our annual ​World Conference.​ Follow  us on Twitter ​@iabcuk.

Gay Flashman is a former Managing Editor of Channel 4 News and an experienced communications consultant.  Gay is CEO of ​Formative Content​, a UK based agency providing high quality blog  content, live event coverage ​and social media content ​for clients around the world.

On Demand Webinar: Get to YES with your messages

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Communication pros are called on frequently to write messages that will influence an audience. Perhaps they need to convince senior management that their idea is better than someone else’s, or maybe they want to persuade employees to change their opinion of a new policy. Persuasive appeals often require overcoming resistance or swaying the skeptics.

This on-demand webinar explores the reasons behavioral scientists have found people change their opinion or agree to certain requests. It shares techniques for influencing the audience’s thought process for both written and verbal communications.

In this webinar, learn:

  • How to open a persuasive message or speech when the audience is resistant or indifferent.
  • How to position information for maximum impact.
  • Why your credibility is essential to your persuasiveness and what you can do to strengthen your image if the audience does not have a favorable view of you.
  • How to use three principles of behavioral psychology to induce people to accept your point of view.

Watch the free-to-member webinar recording.

Ken_OQuinn_Profile_resized_400x400Presenter / Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach whose workshops have helped thousands of communicators worldwide to sharpen their writing skills. He started Writing With Clarity following a journalism career with the Associated Press. O’Quinn has been a guest speaker at the IABC and PRSA international conferences, and his writing has appeared in Fast Company, the Harvard Management Communication Letter and the Journal of Employee Communication Management. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill).

Caroline Cornell

Caroline Cornell

Caroline Cornell is associate editor for IABC’s content department.

Why should you join the IABC this November?

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New and lapsed members enjoy application fee waivers and 10% off dues. 

Join in November to receive both an application fee waiver and discounted dues!

As a new or lapsed member joining this November, you’ll get 10% off dues and won’t have to pay the $40 (approximately £26.50) application fee.

What can you achieve as a member?

As an individual, you’ll have the best opportunities to develop your career at a faster rate. The IABC enables you to connect with communications experts, access comprehensive learning materials and seek guidance on how to achieve your career goals through the Career Roadmap.

IABC membership facilitates excellent networking at all levels. You can connect with communication leaders at  regional, national and international levels to meet you and your businesses needs, building invaluable connections.

Peer-reviewed research, thousands of fresh and relevant articles form our innovative content base, which you can access as an IABC member.

There has never been a better time to join the IABC, why not gain an edge in the communications industry?

Existing member?

Refer someone new and you’ll be entered into a prize draw to win a VIC (Very Important Communicator) World Conference 2016 Registration package, as well as facilitating networking with even more communication professionals!

Social media tools for big business

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Case studies and real-life insights, as well as new approaches to internal comms dominated the agenda at the seventh SMiLE London last week, attended by several IABC UK board members

SMiLE is a hugely popular event run by Simply Communicate twice a year to discuss issues, trends and challenges in the implementation and execution of social media in large organisations.

Companies represented at the event this year included Philips, the Football Association, British Gas, EY and Virgin Trains.

Industry speaker highlights

Paddy Power: Rosie Boylan, head of internal communication at the online betting service talked about the direction in which internal comms is heading, saying that companies are moving away from “posters and email”. Rosie’s view is that comms teams should aim for one primary message per month to staff; it’s vital that, rather than just pushing out a message, comms teams focus on defining and measuring the impact of the messaging. Briefing templates can help with this process.

The Football Association: Jamie Crigg of the Football Association outlined the FA’s use of Telligent app to link its 1,800 staff. The FA creates a range of topic and department groups for focused, targeted coms; governance ensures that the number of groups is limited, and that multiple groups that deal with the same matters are not created. To make Telligent work effectively and to manage and archive groups, internal community owners are needed. In addition to the general internal comms material being created and shared via Telligent, senior managers are blogging to provide updates and progress, rather than sending multiple corporate emails.

Philips: Dennis Agusi , head of global internal comms at Philips, mapped out the organisation’s range of tools. The company is using IBM Connections, as well as SocialCast plus SharePoint. Mr Agusi’s view is that these tools support managers to communicate directly with staff, rather than tactically ‘sending’ comms messages out to all. As well as the social and integrated social software, the company is also using Kaltura for centralised video hosting to save time and money with video hosting and sharing. Philips has also ‘reimagined’ its intranet, moving away from a straightforward navigation-based intranet to a task-based, topic-based intranet.

Casilda Malagon, IABC-UK Chapter President, attended the conference and reflected:

“Integration seemed to be the name of the game. Whether we are looking at adopting new tools or platforms, or raising engagement in existing ones, the discussion is now focussing on how we use everything we have in hand for the purpose of our businesses.”

“The way forward will be to start with the needs and desires of our audiences – in this case employees – and map out how social can support them. SMiLE brought the human back into social, again!”

Other IABC attendees at SMiLE included Lesley Crook IABC-UK Chapter board member, and newly appointed consultant at Enterprise Strategies. Lesley ran a table discussion on Working out Loud in a Network. Coincidentally its International Working Out Loud this week, 16-23 November 2015.

Liam Fitzpatrick IABC Certification Council and Partner at Working Strategies also ran a table discussion “What’s On Your Dashboard?”.

For more stories and information from SMiLE London see the event conversations on Storify

The next IABC event will be our IABC Meaningful Measurement workshop on 25 November, 6pm at Anglo American, 20 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AN.