How researchers get heard
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The Definition of Insanity

new survey by Deutsche Welle confirms the obvious: the launch of the new UN report on the state of Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystems got far less media coverage than…the birth of Royal Baby Archie:

In the battle for public attention, the royal baby was king. It relegated next-day coverage of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report from the front pages of all but two of Britain’s national newspapers. Globally, Google searches for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were 14 and 31 times higher than biodiversity the day the report came out.

But is it that a failure…for anyone?

1) As Deutsche Welle notes, it’s hard to connect with people about “biodiversity” — harder than even climate change:

People care about biodiversity loss but face barriers to engaging with it, said Kathryn Williams, environmental psychologist at the University of Melbourne. This, she says, is because we may not recognize plants, animals and places we love in the words “biodiversity” and “species”; the scale of extinction and loss can feel so overwhelming that we distance ourselves emotionally; and, on an individual level, we don’t know how to stop it.

In fact, the term “biodiversity” is so abstract, Deutsche Welle notes, that the Guardian’s style guide now advises using “wildlife” instead.

2) And yet the report did get coverage: 20,000 unique articles across 45 languages, according to IPBES comms office Patrick Tonissen, who also told Deutsche Welle that the report triggered immediate actions by a few governments.

“I would not say the response was perfect or by any means ideal,” said Tonissen. “But it was a major step forward in raising awareness of biodiversity.”

3) However, here’s what a scientist close to the UN report told me:

I’m very skeptical about the impact of reports. Reports are mostly to help groups get their own act together. Putting these things out for external use…I mean, people don’t absorb information in that way anymore.

OK, let’s tally all that up:

  • “Biodiversity” is a term it’s very hard to connect with;
  • Reports have dubious impact in and of themselves;
  • Corporate media usually cover what people like to talk about, not what people need to talk about;
  • And yet the world’s leading body on the crisis in the natural world issues a report on biodiversity — basically doubling down on that term — which gains tens of thousands of articles in coverage and some government responses, and was “a major step forward in raising awareness of biodiversity.”

So: is the UN report a communications success, because it exceeded all reasonable expectations as a media play?

Or: is it a failure because it failed to galvanize the most media coverage and move the entire world to immediate discussion and action?

When are we going to stop flogging ourselves and our fellow humans because a science-based report didn’t catch everyone’s attention?

Imagine evaluating the success or failure of a product based on the first few days of sales. Movies, sure. But that’s not the way the rest of the world works.

The problem isn’t the report. It’s what comes after — if anything.

Research still communicates in units of papers, reports and launches — the way it’s always done business. But that’s an elite-media-dependent, time-bound approach that today:

  • Must compete for the attention of an ever-dwindling number of editors and journalists;
  • Is under threat from being obliterated by royal births and other acts of God;
  • Has to cultivate exactly the right messaging out of often impenetrable language; and
  • Has zero follow-on, which means it gets obliterated within a day by whatever’s next.

The rest of the world markets to audiences with long-lead campaigns — tailored engagement strategies deployed over a year or more to cultivate a variety of actors at different stages of awareness and eventually win them over to a product, a cause, a mindset.

The question to ask isn’t: did this report get coverage?

The question to ask is: what are the next steps in our ideas campaign? And for the next two years after the report?

Takeaway: The lesson to learn from climate change communications isn’t “we told the world for 30 years and we didn’t get enough coverage and giant forces were against us and people are stupid anyway.”

That hasn’t stopped public health campaigns.

The lesson to learn from climate change communications is: You didn’t have 30 years to waste, and yet you kept doing just reports and papers.