A case study in the intersection between health, media and policy

May 14, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Health Policy, Journalism, Media business, Public Health, Storytelling, Strategic planning, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My latest blog post for the Center for Health, Media and Policy at Hunter College/CUNY addresses a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while — the challenge of clearly and effectively communicating clinical guidelines in a world that demands evidence-based medicine and effectiveness research but isn’t always so welcoming when the data doesn’t match “conventional wisdom” or there is genuine disagreement about how to best care for and advise patients.

The “case study” I refer to is the 2009 release of new mammography screening guidelines by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). I was reminded of the potential lessons in strategic communications to be learned here by a study and accompanying commentary recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, where I’m pleased to serve as Editor-at-Large. I had nothing to do with these papers, but their review of and perspective on both public perception of the guidelines and media coverage of their release is rather enlightening.

As an AJPM editor, I’m more than happy to hear what you have to think about this topic. Email me at bsilberg@ucsd.edu with any comments.

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What science editors have on their minds these days….

May 5, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Digital strategy, Journalism, Mobile internet, Multimedia, Social media, Storytelling | Leave a comment

I’m just back from Baltimore and the annual meeting of the Council of Science Editors (CSE), an organization with which I’ve been pleased to be associated for — OMG — more than 20 years. I was privileged to be a member of this year’s Program Committee (next year’s too) as well as serve as a moderator for three sessions, on the state of the STM marketplace, media relations tips and tricks, and how to develop a killer mobile strategy (a session organized with my colleague Robert Harington of the American Institute of Physics).

Slides from all three sessions should be up on the CSE site at some point. Until then, I’m pleased that one of the speakers at my media relations session, Brian Reid of WCG, has posted an excellent summary of his talk and those of his co-speakers, Reuters Health Executive Editor Ivan Oransky, MD, and Jann Ingmire, Director of Media Relations for JAMA and the Archives Journals (yet another job I used to have that someone now does far better than I did). Check out Brian’s post here. Ivan posted his slides as well;  some very straightforward and practical advice for public information officers and other media relations types who want to know how to get his attention and that of his journalist colleagues.

What’s in a byline? If you’re the AP, not the word “writer” anymore

October 16, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Posted in Business Models, Communications strategy, Journalism, Media business, Multimedia, Social media, Storytelling, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I have to admit, I was a bit troubled by word that the Associated Press was dropping the term “writer” in bylines noting by whom many of its dispatches are “written.” At first, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Then, I realized that this seemingly small and, to many I’m sure, totally innocuous change, raised some much bigger issues, at least for me.

The report from mediabistro cited a memo by AP Deputy Managing Editor Tom Kent saying “that the term ‘Associated Press writer’ would be retired in favor of ‘Associated Press” in order to allow for the fact that, increasingly, articles may be written by photographers, videographers and radio reporters in addition to those working primarily in print.” The change, Kent noted, would not affect bylines for AP’s “special” writers — sports, political, business and so on — and that when several AP staffers contribute to a piece, an end note can identify them individually.

No big deal, right? Kent is just acknowledging what we already know — the “old world” journalism lines between writers, reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists, producers and so on are now very fuzzy. Add in “commentators” (anyone, prophet or fool, with a position and a platform) and the growing numbers of “citizen journalists” (anyone with a cell phone and a nose for “news”), and the boundaries break down entirely.

Not necessarily a bad thing, right? I mean, what’s so special about traditional journalism and its trappings anyway? (Full disclosure: I was a reporter, editor and bureau chief for UPI — remember UPI, the AP’s arch rival? — for seven years and an editorial manager for professional/trade media for 12 more). Isn’t more news, information and perspective better for society than less? Doesn’t more reporting make it easier for citizens to decide?

Here’s the rub, for me at least, in the move to eliminate the word “writer” in favor of mushing together AP dispatch contributors in more generic bylines.

For all of the wonderful new communications tools and technology we have at our disposal, and for all of their truly transformative potential, I can’t help but think that something basic continues to erode in all channels of public discourse. I fear that all media, fueled by fast-moving technological change, are converging to a lowest common denominator,  where anyone is a “journalist” or a “publisher.” I worry that this not only panders to but accelerates the fleeting attention spans we seem to have for talking about anything that really matters. This is not only ironic but tragic given that the critical issues we face are bigger and scarier than ever.

Let me be clear. I’m not taking about evocative narrative, lush  prose or, for that matter, titles for their own sakes. I like to think that I’ve let go of print as a mindset, not just a medium, and practice what I preach in that regard.

I’m talking about the ability to write (and speak) clearly, think critically, analyze appropriately, act accordingly (and, one hopes, intelligently), and be accountable for those actions.

Am I being overly sensitive? Overly analytical? Overly romantic about or nostalgic for my UPI days? An elitist?Just a cranky old fuddy-duddy? I hope not. If so, please tell me.

Perhaps there’s nothing to be done. Maybe I’m just a Luddite when it comes to this stuff. Maybe I overly value what it means to be a good, clear “writer” and to wear that badge proudly.

I guess Joni Mitchell was right — “Something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day.” Hopefully the equation balances out eventually.

A thousand words… at least

December 8, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Digital strategy, Multimedia, Storytelling, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

We hear a lot in the communications community about how much better it is to show than to tell. This is one of the underpinnings of effective story-telling (no pun or irony meant) and the dramatically increased use of multimedia features in a range of vehicles developed by foundations, advocacy groups, NGOs and the like.

As some recent blog posts show, in today’s Google-ized world, the concept is especially useful when it comes to deciphering the mounds of data that come our way in ever-greater quantities and at an ever-faster pace. In such cases, “data visualization” can quickly bring very complex collections of information into stark and compelling focus.

Harvard Business Publishing offers a nice overview piece on this, Swimming in Data, by management and technology consultant John Sviokla, former Harvard Business School professor of marketing, MIS and decision sciences.

Reminding us of the quote often attributed to Napoleon, “A good sketch is better than a long speech…,” Sviokla suggests that enhanced data visualization methods is a natural way to cope with information overload. He says such techniques are efficient, can help to illustrate the basic nature of a problem and, if really good, “help create a shared view of a situation and align folks on needed action.” That last point has particular resonance for those of us in strategic communications.

Sviokla cites a few examples of how this theory works in practice, as does a recent post in the Science Roll blog (Bertalan Meskó, founder of Webicina.com). Science Roll points to a spiffy visualization on “The Cost of Getting Sick” on the very cool Flowing Data site. This series of interactive polar pie charts uses data from GE and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to show what various conditions cost at different ages. Lead credit for the work goes to data designer Ben Fry, now the director of SEED visualization.

Of course, this latest generation of data visualization builds on years of work by others.  One of my personal heroes in the field is Nigel Holmes of Explanation Graphics (disclosure: Nigel did some work for me and my colleagues when I was at JAMA). Holmes is a former Time Magazine graphics director and was one of the most interesting and entertaining teachers at the now-dormant Stanford Publishing Course. And no discussion of how to effectively present data would be complete without a nod to visual communications guru Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale and author of seven books, including one of the field’s Bibles, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Dancing as fast as we can — takeaways from CommNet ’09

October 16, 2009 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Digital strategy, Multimedia, Social media, Storytelling, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

The Communications Network’s just-concluded annual conference provided equal installments of the cutting-edge — how to leverage social media — and the basic — how to craft and implement core communications strategies and overhaul your web site.

A squad of volunteers tweeted and blogged about the conference in real time. Rather than recount what other have already said far better than I, see the results of this useful and interesting experiment in using social media to discuss, among other things, how to best use social media, on the Network blog and archived Twitter stream.

My own thoughts, which I hope add some value to the ongoing conversation.

Social media. The biggest buzz. Keynoter Clay Shirky, an NYU professor and Web 2.0 big thinker, made me want to rush downtown to sign up for what must be a very entertaining and informative class. But I was also reminded that it’s important not to get too caught up in any evangelist’s fervor, even as they motivate you to a higher calling.

Shirky offered a series of compelling take-home messages about the revolutionary nature of the web in general and social media tools in particular, especially their ability to encourage unfettered information-sharing that can easily translate into calls to action. The good news – these tools offer those of us in strategic communications numerous opportunities to connect, monitor, listen and interact with audiences that not only are interested in what we do but can be helpful to advancing the goals of the institutions for which we work. The big challenge – getting past the notion that we can exert the same level of “message control” in this vigorous e-discourse that we might through more traditional one-way channels. As Shirky notes, “give it up” (you might want to use that in your next communications planning memo to the boss).

I fully buy into the potentially substantial upside and the argument that if you’re not part of the conversation, you’re letting others define you. After all, the train is moving, fast, and we’re be best advised to hop on in some appropriate and useful fashion while the thing figures out where it’s going. I actually would have liked a little more leavening discussion from Shirky of the “dark side” of this ride; Frank Rich did cover that, in spades, the night before, in the broader context of how the media have been ripe for manipulation for decades and now it’s just a lot easier. But Shirky did remind us of the need to be sure that we’re weighing the value of these tools as we would any others. Because at the end of the day, that’s what they are – tools, to be used strategically and carefully, like any other.

Story-telling has been a popular theme in non-profit communications for years, a mantra for many of us trying to get the word out and engage key audiences with more than just the latest white paper. And so it was at this conference. My main takeaway here was a useful discussion of the tricky business of getting top-level buy-in for the notion (“that’s just not what we do”); program-level buy-in for  identifying and vetting the stories we want to tell (“I’m just too busy helping grantees effect real change”) and a realistic process for the storytelling itself, regardless of the media formats we choose to use.

Digital strategies, from web site overhauls to more aggressive use of multimedia to jumping into the social media space, are critical to get right, as we all know. And they should be intelligently and firmly integrated into an overall communications strategy that is a solid extension of clearly defined institutional goals, aligned fully with grant-making. So it was a reassuring reality check to hear that no one – not even some of the big guys – has quite yet reached this strategic Nirvana. At the end of the day, we’re all just doing the very best we can to get it right. And while there were plenty of tips about what to do and scores of suggestions of tools with which to experiment, the bottom lines were familiar and worth repeating, maybe even reTweeting.

  • Focus on a clear number of agreed-upon, critical goals.
  • Plan. Rinse. Repeat.
  • Work tirelessly for enterprise-wide buy-in, giving credit where it’s due.
  • Do your homework on technical issues (and get expert help if needed).
  • Establish performance baselines and realistic metrics for improvement.
  • Monitor progress over time and adjust as you go.
  • Don’t fall in love with gadgets.
  • Don’t kill good ideas with endless discussion.
  • Just try it.

How well will we have applied these lessons when we meet for next fall’s conference? And what will be the new new thing by then?

Stay tuned.

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