Embracing Change To Stay Relevant
I once heard healthy organizations are constantly changing. This means effective leaders are not only agents of change but are also change managers. As the Executive Director of a science communication organization, this philosophy has become a mantra for me as I strive to keep our organization healthy. Because we operate at the nexus of the quickly moving worlds of science, media and policy, recognizing that embracing and adapting to change is the norm means that it’s OK that this is part of our daily work too. Embracing change has liberated me.
In the past few weeks I’ve been reminded of the inevitability of change. Journalist Juliet Eilperin’s announcement that she was moving jobs within The Washington Post from the environment desk to cover the White House received a lot of attention. COMPASS, and the network of scientists we work with, has been connected to Juliet for years. She’s been a friend, an inquisitor, and a “go-to” reporter for anyone working within an environmental field. And, only three days before this announcement, the news of the New York Times shutting down its Green blog hit the streets. The Green blog was the last bastion of focused environmental reporting at the New York Times after it completely disbanded its environment desk in January. Perhaps there’s a silver lining in all of this—environment writers are still out there cross-pollinating in new fields—but, the reality is… things are changing.
Effective scientist communicators are agents and managers of change too. In our work with scientist communicators, embracing change is a constant in order to best support their journeys to share and engage outside of academia. Two critical pillars of successful science communication are relevance and relationships. As the world shifts, why and how their science and insights are relevant changes too. I’ve often considered the path of budding chemical oceanographers and marine biologists of 20 years ago: They started studying carbon mass balance, carbonate chemistry, or the physiology of calcifiers probably because those things were scientifically interesting from a pure physics and chemical perspective. Or, perhaps they followed that path because corals were amazing and understudied, or shellfish were a promising food source. Yet now, hundreds of these scientists have knowledge and insights relevant to the effects of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in the ocean, manifesting as ocean acidification. Their knowledge is relevant in a way they probably hadn’t predicted when they started their careers. On top of all of this, and in the background of all of our careers, the people to whom our insights are relevant constantly changes as people take on new jobs, new institutions are created, old enterprises shut down, new interests arise, etc.
The most skillful and effective scientist communicators do their homework and think about the world around them, asking questions like: “So what? Why does what I know matter?” Then they figure out to whom this information matters, and they develop a relationship with that person. But they don’t stop there. They constantly reevaluate this landscape because, yes, the world changes. Constantly.
Our work in Washington D.C., connecting scientists to decision-makers, lives in a world of change too. Relevancy can be unpredictable inside the beltway. We might be planning to bring scientists to the Capitol to talk about ecological restoration and ecosystem services, put in months of prep and planning, and then… boom! We are about to fall off the fiscal cliff and ecological resilience may not be what Congress wants to hear about. If it’s not going to be relevant, people won’t listen and they surely won’t engage. Fast forward just a few mofnths later: The National Academies is about to release a report about ecosystem services in the Gulf of Mexico the same week the President’s Task Force on the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill is to release their findings—quick! Get that ecological restoration panel back together, it’s relevant!
And of course relationships are the currency in politics. In a city of high turnover, every election brings in new people, new staff, new priorities. When the 113th Congress fired up earlier this year there were 83 new Representatives (bringing in about 1010 new staff) and 15 new Senators (bringing in about 406 new staff)—this alone means there were over 1,500 new people in Congress in just the member’s offices! This doesn’t include committee staff, Congressional Research Service, etc.—let alone any turn over in the Administration! To stay on top of this change, COMPASS utilizes resources like Leadership Directories, a service, updated daily, that tracks who is in what government job. This isn’t unlike some major media contact tracking services like Meltwater Group or Burrelles Luce… these guys made a business based on the inevitability of change and the importance of relationships! So maybe Juliet won’t be your go-to environmental reporter now, but you may be working on something relevant to White House politics (climate change, perhaps?), and she may turn out to be your go-to person just yet. It’s always good form to uphold existing relationships (even when jobs change because they will likely change again). And it’s great form to be constantly making new relationships. It may be time to forge a relationship with the new person on the Washington Post environment beat (when he/she is announced). Maybe find other relevant reporters working in different places at the New York Times, particularly if there is a business or political discussion around a topic relevant to your science. And you don’t necessarily need to subscribe to all these tracking services, or spend your life tracking—but pay attention, look around, and track what you see in a system that works for you (your address book, Evernote, LinkedIn, etc). And yes, we know this is tough and it takes time, that the world is big, and your science career keeps you busy enough as it is! One of the reasons COMPASS exists is to help you navigate your way through relevance and relationships. We track these changes, subscribe to these services, constantly maintain existing relationships and are always making new ones—this is what we specialize in—we love to make connections. Brooke Smith was Executive Director at COMPASS from 2004-2016. This post was transferred from its original location at www.compassonline.org to www.COMPASSscicomm.org, August 2017.
Image info: Juliet Eilperin interacts with scientists at a COMPASS training. She recently announced she’ll be leaving the environment desk to cover the White House for the Washington Post. Image provided by COMPASS.