Last night, I attended the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (CIRM) San Francisco Town Hall for stem cell science. In their words:
“The Town Forums provide an interactive opportunity for people to learn how CIRM is investing
Proposition 71 funds to improve human health and about advances in stem cell science from some of the
most distinguished researchers in the field.”
CIRM manages the public money that was allotted for stem cell research through the passage of Prop. 71. Part of their mandate is to inform the public of the state of the research. They have a vested interest in doing a good job at the public outreach: future funding depends on it.
I went with great hopes for a well-attended, message driven, engaging experience.
They did have the numbers. It’s estimated by the CIRM chief communications officer, Don Gibbons, that 275 people came to the event, which is 75 more than had RSVP’d. So, in terms of feet in the meeting room, the people came.
Needless to say, there were event posters plastered all over SF Muni’s buses and trains for a month prior. But, the fact that so many people had RSVP’d makes me wonder how successful the print ad campaign actually was. I don’t know how many people would write down the email address in order to reply once in front of a computer. Yes, in San Francisco, many people could have used their mobile devices to respond on route, but I still wonder. I know I never RSVP’d. I just showed up.
An RSVP is most likely to come from someone who receives an email communication, an invitation, or… a press release. And, those people are going to be somehow linked to the organization through some kind of list. So, how many of the attendees were citizens of this California locality with no link to CIRM? Probably not as many as they hoped to attract.
But, what about people who might have been interested, but unable to make it to the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco? What about Californians in Redding, Stockton, Humboldt, Fresno? That’s a long drive to make for a lecture on stem cells. This is where CIRM fails in its mandate to inform the public of its activities, and where it fails at basic Web 2.0.
With today’s internet capabilities, there is no excuse for relying on outreach techniques of yesterday. They have a mandate to reach the public. I don’t think 275 attendees cuts the mustard. So, where could they have improved?
1.Interact with the audience
If it’s supposed to be interactive, make it interactive.
Sure, the q and a after the lectures was interactive for the people in attendance, but they could do so much better. There are web companies that make it easy to set up a simple camera and stream events live to people around the world. Not only does the video reach a wider audience, the platforms make interactive chat between people hosting and viewing an event possible. Both the informational lectures and the question and answer session could have been made richer by the parallel discussion. I had the only video camera at the town hall, and I wasn’t streaming.
2. Engage the audience
Who did CIRM have presenting to the audience? Scientists. And, while scientists are smart and everything, they don’t always do a good job of conveying information to a lay audience. The lectures last night were academic, textbook, and DRY. If it weren’t for the fact that I think 2/3 of the people in the room had a science background, the lectures would have been over the heads of the average person. Add to the lecture content the fact that the visual presentations were abysmal. The slides were consistently over-stuffed with text or overly-complicated graphics. However, there were two bright spots. Tamara Alliston, who lectured on cartilage, did an excellent job of using cartilage as the main character in her story, and Bruce Conklin, who lectured on heart muscle, effectively used humor to his benefit (not to mention that he also had cool videos). Both of these techniques are extremely effective in getting an audience to engage with a topic.
3. Don’t forget the audience
It seemed as though, as well-intentioned as the speakers were, the purpose of the event was muddled. They forgot the concerns of the audience.
The entire series of three lectures needed to be message driven rather than driven by scientific jargon and research techniques. For future events, I suggest enlisting a public relations expert to train the speakers and help craft a series of engaging lectures with hooks to draw the audience in, stories to keep them engaged, and simple bottom-lines. What is the take home message? Drive it home.
4. Get the audience to spread the word
I’m spreading the word because that was my goal in attending. I wanted to see how this town hall was produced, and then talk about it. CIRM needs to get their audience to advertise for them, to pass their messages along for them. Where are those opportunities? Their website is devoid of ways to interact, communicate, and share. I did hear last night that part of the reason the website is suffering is that it is managed by the state, and has to deal with a lot of internal beaurocracy. Fair enough, but it is easy to become involved in non-state-managed web communities like Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, Stumble Upon, or even Flickr. What about Seesmic? I can imagine some interesting discussions taking place there. To CIRM’s credit, they do have both a YouTube site and a Flickr account.
5. Give the audience what they want
Some of the most effective campaigns to get the public interested in science are being run by NASA and the California Academy of Sciences. They are taking advantage of all the data available to them, and creating fascinating new ways to interact with their respective audiences in just the way the audience wants. NASA’s recent Twitter accounts have had amazing success, especially @MarsPhoenix. Then there is NASA.tv where I watched the recent shuttle docking with the International Space Station. Here in San Francisco, the Cal Academy recently began a Thursday night, adults-only event with top djs and alcohol. So far, it has been a raging success.
These examples aren’t necessarily exactly what CIRM should do, but they should learn the lesson of giving the audience what they want.
I’ve been a bit harsh on CIRM for its inaugural public outreach event, but I think it is deserved. Science media is lacking, and every organization that is trying to share scientific information with the public needs to do their absolute best to step it up. Science needs to use PR and web 2.0 techniques just like everyone else.
I will admit that the whole town hall left me feeling as if CIRM was only just going through the motions of fulfilling its mandate for public outreach rather than truly making an effort to reach out and educate the people of California and beyond. I hope they do better next time.Filed under Science & Politics |