Thursday, October 27, 2016

10 minute read: Katharine Heyhoe, My new favorite science communicator!

This 10 minute read is a New York Times profile of "climate explainer" Katharine Heyhoe from a few weeks ago.  A scientist at Texas Tech University, Heyhoe 'stays above the storm' in talking with others about this challenging and often controversial science policy topic.  Doesn't that sound nice?

I wasn't familiar with Heyhoe's work before reading this article, but now she's one of my #scicomm heroes!

Here are just two things to like about her:

  • She's nice. The article quotes her as saying, “If you begin a conversation with, ‘You’re an idiot,’ that’s the end of the conversation,” and gives several examples of her commitment to consensus and personal connection. (Some disagree that 'congeniality' is enough to counteract those who knowingly spread misinformation, as the article also mentions.) 
  • She is a Christian, and speaks constructively from that faith context. In the 2-minute introduction to her new PBS Digital Studios series, Global Weirding, she explicitly uses this identity to challenge assumptions about what kinds of people take one position or another on climate change. It's one of the most creative and practical applications of the science of science communications I've seen recently. (...What is... Cultural cognition theory ..anyone, anyone??) 

I suspect there's a lot to learn from in Heyhoe's approach, especially for those of us active in another challenging and often controversial science policy topic -- agriculture technology!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How to anticipate issues: a hurricane story

For the past year, I’ve been living in south Florida. When “hurricane season” began in June, we paid attention as new residents to advice on how to prepare. We bought 5 gallons of drinking water, canned food and a solar-powered hand-crank radio/flashlight that can also charge a phone (allegedly). We bought an extra can of propane for our gas barbecue.

And then we kind of forgot about it for the past few months. There were no hurricanes, not even a tropical storm that seriously threatened our area.

Thursday, 11am radar
All that changed last week. I was preparing to travel home from St Louis on Tuesday when I finally looked at the weather forecast. At that point there were a number of predictions for Matthew’s storm path, but under any one of them, we were going to get wet in Ft Lauderdale sometime on Thursday. My phone started to buzz with group messages from local friends about shopping plans and potential evacuation destinations. I joked about buying toilet paper in Missouri to bring home.

Once home, my husband and I went through our ‘prep list’ once more. We inventoried our pantry and freezer. We needed just a few things from the grocery store (including toilet paper), and took care of that early Wednesday morning. We began listening to more news reports and weather forecasts and made a Twitter list of local government bodies and media to follow for news.

Thursday morning I had a conference call for work and told everyone that there was a good chance
we’d lose power (and with it, internet access) sometime later in the day. We moved the last things in from the patio and put down the metal storm shutters.  The local forecast, even as the first bands of wind and rain hit us, continued to be dire, with strict warnings about staying off the roads from now until well after the storm passed. Our last task was to fill up the bath tub with clean water, and plug our phones in so they’d be fully charged whenever the power went off. Then we sat inside and watched and waited.

The experience of preparing for a natural disaster has some interesting parallels to the process of issue anticipation and management for agriculture research projects. 

The first and most important part of managing public issues is anticipating them.  In agriculture technology policy environment, it may be a pending policy decision in a place we’re working. Looking at our own work, we identify scenarios that could require issue management, including:

  • Complex research results that take our work in a new direction, 
  • Activities like field testing where our work is visible in a new way to stakeholders, 
  • Difficult questions about some aspect of our work. 

Potential issues arising from our work and from the environment around us can be easily inventoried through a simple SWOT analysis. This exercise should be done on a regular basis as the project evolves --- and it should include the entire team of technology, regulatory, product development and communication professionals.

The next step in good issue management is to prepare for those potential scenarios well ahead of them actually happening. The time to have influence over how an issue will evolve is before it has a lot of attention from stakeholders or in the worst case, has become a crisis. Key activities in this period are:
  • Defining the issue, collecting background, drafting key messages or talking points and identifying others who can help provide more context around the issue. We often develop ‘issue briefs’ – internal documents containing all of this information for easy updating and reference.
  • Strategic actions that could help avoid the issue altogether. Examples could be preemptively publishing results with our own context or proactively building relationships with the community around a field location to build local support. 
  • Monitoring the environment. We actively look for signals that the potential issue may be developing into something real, by listening carefully to stakeholders, following key influencers and tracking media. 

All of these activities are best done early on. Once a ‘trigger event’ occurs and the issue is more broadly known, stress kicks in on all sides and there is much less ability to have an impact. So we anticipate, we prepare, and then we wait.

Back to Hurricane Matthew.

We knew when we moved to south Florida that we would be in an environment that is vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes. We heard stories from people here who lost power for two weeks after Hurricane Wilma 11 years ago. We were invited by a friend who lives ten miles further inland in a house with a generator to come to him if evacuation from our home was ever required. At the beginning of hurricane season, we paid attention to advice about stocks to keep.

Hurricane Matthew’s approach was signaled by devastation of Haiti and movement across Bermuda, and all of the forecast lines finally converging on a path up Florida’s east coast.  The local authorities, especially Florida Governor Rick Scott, did a terrific job in keeping people informed and encouraging them to prepare before a specific ‘trigger event’ when the first weather was due to hit south Florida around noon on Thursday. (Read this fascinating NYT piece about risk communications for evacuations.) All of our options would be much more limited as stores and roads closed across our area.

As it happened, we were very, very lucky in south Florida. Hurricane Matthew didn’t make landfall anywhere near here, and because it stayed off shore, the winds and rain were much less than originally feared, no worse than a normal south Florida thunderstorm. We didn’t lose power for more than a few moments. We came through it with a bathtub full of water we didn’t need.

Our friends in north Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas took a more direct hit from Matthew after going through the same preparation that we did, even evacuating in some cases, and lives were surely saved because of that. We were infinitely more fortunate than those most vulnerable people in Haiti, who simply didn’t have the resources in the first place to prepare or to shelter, and who are now suffering devastation beyond the worst that we feared. (I support the work of the World Food Programme annually and in response to emergencies like these.)

As in issue management, the time and energy spent to prepare for Hurricane Matthew was well worth it. I’d prepare the same way all over again, but there will probably be some people who won’t take the warnings to prepare for hurricane so seriously next time. Every time we prepare for an issue in our projects and the worst-case scenario doesn’t come to pass, I feel relief but also worry that my colleagues won’t want to go through the preparation exercise next time.

Maybe thinking about a potential issue as a hurricane warning helps. 

We have to anticipate and prepare, with a well-stocked communications pantry and a watchful eye the forecast, because there’s always a storm brewing somewhere.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

What I learned at #SABC2016

This week I had the privilege of participating in the 4th Annual South Asia Biosafety Conference (#SABC2016) , convened in Hyderabad, India, and organized by the South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP), Biotech Consortium India Limited (BCIL), and the ILSI Research Foundation.

The organizers kindly asked me to present a talk on communications to the group --- as it turned out, the last scheduled talk of the last session on the last day of the conference! Why do we always leave the topic of communications to the end of our meeting/conference call/grant proposal?  I made the case that we mustn’t leave the work of communication and outreach to the end of our project, and shared ways to build strong messages that start with ‘why’, visibility, allies and issue management, all to reduce risks from start to finish. 

But for three days of incredibly diverse talks before that, each session expanded my own understanding of biosafety concepts, trends, and challenges. 

Biosafety is all about identifying, assessing and managing potential risks from biological research and development. In the case of agricultural biotechnology, this includes safety for human and animal health (that is, food and feed) as well as environmental safety.

#SABC2016 speakers beautifully demonstrated what this means in South Asia and beyond. Here are my top three take-aways:

1. Biosafety anywhere can help biosafety everywhere. 
Updates on the status of biosafety across South Asia were complemented by presentations on biosafety policies, systems and experiences in SE Asia, South Africa and Kenya. This gave us all a more complete sense of how concepts and best practices are evolving, and new ideas for ways to address similar challenges. For example, Abe Manalo’s review of recent twists and turns in the Philippines' biosafety system and Osman Mewett’s talk on Australia’s combination of federal and state policies both gave hope for others on similar regulatory adventures. Hennie Groenewald’s description of how South Africa’s regulators, technology providers and farmer worked together to make refuge requirements a reality was also of great interest. 

2. Biosafety isn’t just for GM plants. 
Dr John Teem talked about GIANT SNAILS!
I’m a confirmed plant nerd, but it was fascinating to hear how researchers are developing new ways to stop the spread of invasive species (GIANT SNAILS!!), protect important industries (silkworms) and stop the spread of disease (mosquitos). Walking us through the safety considerations related to each of these benefits gave a fresh perspective on why and how we address these issues in the first place. 

3. Biosafety has to keep up with new advances in research and development. 
So-called ‘new breeding technologies’ look like they’re going to deliver important new benefits for agriculture.  This week I made more progress in my personal quest to really understand what gene-editing, gene drives, CRISPR cas9 and other new tools are all about. I’ve been communicating about GM technology for two decades now, and if I struggle to track the new stuff and find ways to explain it to others, imagine the challenges facing regulators around the world! The science says these new technologies may have even less potential risk than the older transgenics, but they still need to be properly assessed. And in the meantime, GM products in development and in the ground still have enormous value and shouldn’t be abandoned (the story of the virus-resistant plums is especially compelling). 

Other highlights included learning about story-centric approach to writing regulatory dossiers, my first visit the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and sharing a panel with Director-General Dr David Bergvinson, catching up with dear colleagues from past projects, and meeting new friends over delicious plates of briyani (and a long bus ride or two). 

My talk and most of the others are online now. Please explore and support the work of SABP as they help scientists and regulators in India, Bangladesh and other countries build their research tools, training, policies and networks. It’s all about using new agriculture technology to safely benefit economic and agricultural development, international trade and environmental sustainability -- and those most in need. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Why I start with why

Around 7 years ago, my scientist-friend G. came back from a conference on agriculture research full of excitement about a communications talk he'd heard. "We need to talk first about why we're doing this project," he said, "before we tell people what we're doing!" The speaker’s point was that putting the 'what' before the 'why' makes it difficult for people to connect with research and new technology projects. 

Ever since that day, 'why before what' has been a guiding principle in my communications work. I've encouraged every client I work with to craft core messages that begin with the challenge or problem in agriculture, nutrition or development before jumping into the details of what and how they're addressing it. It can be a tough sell because when scientists talk to other scientists, they're all most interested in the cool new technique or elegant pathway or unique combination of genes at the heart of the research program. 
 Source: IRRI

But for every other audience, taking time to first describe the 'why' behind the work pays off. It may be impact of a plant disease on small family farms in east Africa. It may be the lifelong health risks to children in Asia who are growing up without essential nutrients even  after all other nutrition programs have done the best they can do. 

I'm giving a talk at the SABC conference in Hyderabad next week about keys to communicating well throughout a research project’s lifecycle, and 'why before what' is my first piece of advice.  As I organized my talk I was curious about where that concept came from. Google revealed that Simon Sinek has a widely-viewed TED talk and a bestselling leadership book from 2009, both titled "Start with Why." Perhaps this was the speaker my friend G. heard, or the at least where the speaker got his ideas. 

 Sinek's Golden CircleThe TED talk and the book both lay out a 'Golden Circle' of communications. Actually they are three concentric rings: the outermost is 'what', within it is a smaller one labeled 'how' and at the center is the 'why' circle. Sinek says that most organizations work from the outside in- they first describe what they do/make/sell, then talk about how the way they do it is better than others, and then usually ask for people to buy it. 

And it works sometime- motivating people based on these external or surface factors: price, features, even prestige. But when those things change or are challenged by others, loyalty is fragile. 

On the other hand, starting with 'why' or the core values of an organization helps build connection, relationship and trust with those who share the same values. It is more difficult and even awkward to talk like this, but Sinek cites the impact of visionary leaders such as Bill Gates to make his case that it's worth doing. He kept Microsoft focused on making the power of computers work for people on a personal level, with products that were developed to serve that, rather than a single kind of software. Today of course, Gates and his wife Melinda bring that same leadership to their charitable foundation in the belief that all lives have equal value. That’s their ‘why’ and it in turn inspires and enables the work of so many of us working in agriculture research and development around the world.  

When the 'why' is clear, the 'how' is disciplined and the 'what' is consistent, then we have the best opportunity to find common ground with those stakeholders whose support we are seeking, whose concerns we need to address. We build trust when our motivations are clearly expressed and our actions back it up.

Sinek connects this to neuroscience in his book, but what struck me even more are the connections to the science of risk communication-- specifically the focus on empathy and its primary role in establishing trust and credibility. "People need to know that you care, before they care what you know" I remember hearing from my teacher Vince Covello over and over again! It's all part of the same approach. 

Just last week, G. was able to find the handout from that conference talk many years ago and we were surprised to see that it doesn't mention the word 'why' at all. Perhaps it was just something the speaker said, and in this case it doesn't matter why!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What I learned at the workshop: VisualStory at Duarte Academy

One of the most well-used and frequently-recommended books on my shelf is Resonate by Nancy Duarte. The subtitle is “Present visual stories that transform audiences” and in the two or three times that I’ve been through the entire book, it’s taught me about the hidden structure of compelling and persuasive stories, ways to organize persuasive talks to move people from what is to what could be, and elements of good design that enhance the power of messages.

Plus it’s gorgeous. If I were on a deserted island, this is one of the books I would bring. That’s how much I love it.

I wanted to do something different this summer (here in the US where the seasons actually change), and settled on a goal of attending an in-person training course to build my communication skills further. The public workshops at Duarte Academy fill up pretty quickly, but luckily a last-minute spot opened for a session that fit nicely with other travel plans, and I was off to Silicon Valley.

Yes, I am a fangirl
The first half of the two-day VisualStory workshop focuses on the key content from Resonate. Even though the book is so familiar to me, working through the material in the hands of a highly-skilled trainer took my appreciation to a new level. The 25 or so people in the class were mostly from the surrounding Silicon Valley tech sector, with roles in business development and sales, but also some designers and account managers. I was definitely the only one working in agriculture! 

It was made very clear that we would not need laptops for this workshop. Instead we were given a packet each morning containing a workbook and worksheets to 
  • help us identify and understand our audience, 
  • understand their needs, 
  • focus on the idea we want to move them to, and 
  • (only then) generate and organize messages, stories and other kinds of content
All beautifully designed of course – and oriented in size to work on a table top with small sticky notes and marker pens.

I was a little nervous that we’d have to stand in front of the group and present our work, but it turns out that’s a different workshop (Captivate)! We did introduce ourselves in the beginning, but the important work of sharing our thoughts and getting initial feedback came in the form of talking with others at our table --  a process that was less threatening but still very useful.

Trainer Kevin illustrates what sitting through a bad presentation feels like!
The second day focused on more on the visual side of presentation design, and came with more worksheets and a copy of Nancy’s earlier book (which I didn’t have): Slide:ology.  Working our way through the basics of visual clarity, turning words into diagrams, organizing and tying together different elements on and tying them together throughout the presentation – all of this restoked the fires of my inner amateur designer.

During the workshop, I planned out a new presentation about the importance of speaking up about agriculture technology, targeted at leaders of research institutes. Just a week later, I was invited to give a talk in India about planning communication and outreach as research projects progress, and am using my new tools to develop that.

In a world where remote work, e-courses and high-performance software is fairly cheap and easily available, there’s still no substitute for being in the same room with a gifted teacher, and wrestling with important ideas on paper with a real pen. Read the books, watch the videos, but then go do the work!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Book Report: What I learned from “Hug Your Haters”

Adjusting to life back in the US after more than a decade in Asia, I’m still startled at the meanness of language and attitudes in public life here. I’m so unhappy with reporting and commentary about presidential politics that I often avoid the news altogether--even my beloved New York Times, which I read every day in Singapore.

Public discourse on agriculture development and technology also seems increasingly fraught with controversy, name-calling and dramatics.

So I was drawn to the new book Hug Your Haters after hearing the author Jay Baer interviewed on one of my favorite podcasts, The Accidental Creative. I’m interested in anyone who argues for friendly responses to those who don’t like us.  (I also have a special weakness for alliterative titles!)

Coming from a customer service background and directing this book primarily to businesses, Jay draws on extensive research to describe ‘haters’ who complain about a business or service, including how and why they do it.

The “Hatrix”  (complete with pull-out infographic inside the book) focuses on two categories of Haters: Offstage haters who tend to make their complaints more or less privately in email or by phone, and Onstage haters, who complain more often and very publicly on social media, review sites and other public forums. Offstage haters expect a reply; onstage haters are looking for an audience more than response – which may explain why they tend to be more cutting and extreme in their comments.

With more and more companies using Twitter and Facebook to interact with people, customer service has become a ‘spectator sport’ according to Jay, and that means how companies respond to people can have ripple effects far beyond a single complaint. Staying silent actually speaks volumes.

Jay recommends that businesses respond to every complaint they get, in the same private or public channel it was made (i.e., email, Facebook), with at least two attempts to resolve it. Customers feel better wherever and whenever you respond, he says.

[The third kind of hater is a ‘crazy’ or a troll, and the recommendation is to quietly research those suspected of falling into this category, then respond only in private.]

For companies, Jay describes four benefits of responding to every complaint.
  1. We might retain an unhappy customer (or stakeholder in our case)
  2. There’s the chance of turning them into an advocate for our work. According to the data, haters who have their complaints addressed, whether onstage or offstage, sometimes become advocates for the business. Those with unanswered complaints often become even less of a fan, and everyone in their network probably knows it.
  3. Complaints and comments can be a good source of intelligence for what’s probably on other peoples’ minds, the silent but larger group of people who are confused or dissatisfied but don’t care enough to speak up.
  4. Finally, hugging our haters can help differentiate us from ‘the competition’, by out-loving them.
As advocates for agriculture development (or any other public policy goal), we’re in a different boat from companies who are paid to provide products and services. But I think we have a similar challenge when faced with pointed questions from stakeholders and critics of our positions. Like business owners, sometimes we’re too busy and try to ignore it all. Or we’re too offended to let go of arguments.

Like businesses profiled in this book, we should do our best to respond in ways that are consistent with the values that have lead us to our work in the first place, whether its agriculture, development, technology, some combination of that or something else entirely. We want to help, so we should show up. We want the science to be trusted, so we should avoid impolite language and ad hominem attacks. 

Why? Not just because everyone’s watching. 

If we start hugging our haters (and each other):
  • We might clear up genuine misunderstandings about our work in agriculture, technology and development.
  • We might build relationships and ultimately inspire new champions.
  • We might understand the questions and core concerns of all stakeholders (not just the noisy ones).
  • We might communicate more effectively and minimize the ‘hate’ in the first place.
Now, who needs a hug?

By Jill Kuehnert