Outrageous research – following the target group

A few weeks ago, in one of my less crabby but not entirely magnanimous moments, I referred to an article by science teacher and filmmaker Alom Shaha published published in a glossy magazine aimed at science communication professionals. In that blog post I promised to return to the issue, and discuss other articles from the same issue of CAP Journal in which Shaha’s piece appeared.

The centrepiece of that issue of CAP Journal is a lengthy article by Oana Sandu and Lars Lindberg Christensen, science communication and outreach specialists working for the European Southern Observatory. On the ESO website you will find some of the best science writing and visual presentation available on the Interwebs.

Sandu and Christensen discuss the golden rule of advertising, public relations and marketing – “follow your target group” – and look at how this mantra applies to science communication and public outreach. Now this is a favourite theme of science writers discussing the trade among themselves, but Sandu and Christensen go into considerable depth, and their arguments are reinforced by the experience of ESO. Journalists and documentary filmmakers cannot get enough of ESO’s work, and the organisation is forever getting its stories placed in prominent positions within mainstream media.

ESO’s success in science outreach does not render it immune to criticism, however, and I have mixed feelings about the approach advocated by Sandu and Christensen. Not because of any cheapening or misrepresentation of serious scientific research, over-glossiness or the celebrity obsession endemic to much science broadcasting. That is not the issue here.

What I worry about is a fixation on what are possibly transient social media technologies, and a resultant dilution of effort in spreading communication resources over so wide a sphere. Also, I feel uncomfortable with PR-speak that betrays what I would describe as sociological over-interpretation based on inconclusive evidence. Do we really understand our target group, or are we instead extrapolating from idealised imaginings of cyberspace?

Maybe I’m allowing an irritation with PR jargon to bias my reading of Sandu and Christensen’s argument. That marketing babble certainly doesn’t help, and there is much in the article with which I wholeheartedly concur. But I would caution against media over-stretch that could so easily result from the approach advocated.

There may well be “a chaotic explosion of alternative information channels”, as Sandu and Christensen say, but we will not get very far if we allow ourselves to get caught up in the blast. There is “information and noise” aplenty in cyberspace; the response of science communicators should be enthusiastic engagement, and focus.