Wednesday, June 23, 2010

So You Think Scientists and Engineers Can't Dance?

Marketing complex products and services to the general public is a huge challenge. Our firm specializes in it, and we struggle with trying to figure out how to connect science, health, education and engineering research and findings with the general public.

In many of these disciplines PR people take what they are given – edit it - and put it back out there in the same language it was handed to them in. That doesn’t help anyone else understand it.

So I thought this marketing story would be useful to everyone. It’s about a contest started by John Bohannon, the Gonzo Scientist working with AAAS. The point is to challenge graduate students and their professors to dance their PhDs.

PhDs can be endless documents that take exhaustive research, hours to explain and drive both the writer and his or her spouse (I lived through one fortunately, not mine) crazy. Marriages are destroyed over PhDs, friendships ruined, relationships with advisors can be either helpful or hostile. Earning a PhD is a long and painful process that few come out of unscathed.

PhDs start with a germ of an idea – in my ex-husband’s case the role of NGOs in international political negotiations – and watch it blossom around them. He wrote his thesis (Yes there are other kinds of sciences at MIT) at the beginning of the Internet, when the NGOs like Greenpeace, Save the Whales, and the World Wildlife Fund – were just figuring out how to use this new form of mass communication.

It took 900 pages and ten years to complete (including time out for getting a career and family started). The degree was worth it and the dissertation was thrown into a box in the attic where it remains today. A classmate destroyed his at a Burn Your PhD party. At 900 pages we weren’t burning anything.

I’m describing this process so you can understand just how hard it is for graduate students to transform their research into something that everyone can understand. In its third year, the Dance Your PhD contest lets graduate students and their professors create short videos that are representative of their PhD theses, acting and dancing them out for all to see. The winners get put up on YouTube, feted at the AAAS annual meeting and see their dance performed by a professional company.

As a marketer I love this idea – and so did the media. The first year, Dance Your PhD was on the network news, featured in the New York Times, on NPR and although it hasn’t happened yet – with a bit more pushing will probably end up viral. Call it what you want – Revenge of the Geeks, Geeks Gone Wild – it’s just plain smart marketing.

This type of effort to connect science with the rest of us in an art form we all can all appreciate is what informal science education is all about. From the thesis titles alone you could fall asleep – but the performances are inspirational. Here are few that really capture the spirit of the competition. You can find them on YouTube but the linking mess that is Blogger has stymied me once again. Just type in Dance Your PhD and the name of the submitter.

"Refitting repasts: a spatial exploration of food processing, cooking, sharing and disposal at the Dunefield Midden campsite, South Africa" (University of Oxford). A caveman like figure chases a deer across the stage in an interpretation of hunting and gathering. It’s set to the music of Herbie Hancock and created by Brian Stewart.

The role of Vitamin D in beta-cell function from graduate student, Sue Lynn Lau. An interpretive dance that takes you from Vitamin D production by the sun all the way through how it helps our bodies.

"The role of folate in epigenetic regulation of colon carcinogenesis.” PhD thesis of Lara Park at Tufts University, this one is performed by the Sarabande Repertory Dance Ensemble dance troupe and reminiscent of modern dance gone a bit wild.

All of the blogger links aren't working so if you want to enter go to Facebook - you can do it all through its Dance Your PhD page.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Not in My Backyard Will Become Not in My Ocean

Will the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and images of oil slicked pelicans and blackened sea life, that our children are sharing on YouTube and Facebook, create a new generation of fanatically environmentalist kids? That’s what I’m betting on.

I’m dating myself, but I still remember the black and white concentration camp films we watched in New York City public elementary schools  in the 1960s. We were very young, but the message was clear. They imprinted the raw footage taken by soldiers of gaunt, hollow-eyed concentration camp survivors on an entire generation of American children, so they would never let it happen again.  

Many parents in my generation are very conservative - about what they allow their kids to watch and the trust they place in them. Some won’t let them watch PG-13 movies, set rigid controls on their computers restricting them to pre-approved Web sites, lock up the liquor and drug cabinets, and review what’s permitted  and what’s not before every play date. 

I don’t agree.  Maintaining the innocence of childhood is wonderful, but turning off major events as they unfold in the world around us - childproofing our children rather than teaching - is doing our kids a disservice. They need to know and understand this environmental disaster, and make their own choices because if they don’t, their friends  will do it for them.

Not only is my 10 year-old daughter furious at BP and the images they are glued to on the endless stream of YouTube, she’s questioning how something like this could happen. The only good that can come of it – and I keep telling her this over and over – is that it will never be allowed happen again and she will be a part of that. Do I believe what I’m telling her? Not really, but what else can you say.

A quick Google search found little written about the lasting effect of disasters on children although I know there's a lot out there. As a marketer and a mother I know the power of even the most positive of images and the messages that accompany them.

When my kids were smaller, they would watch ads on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon and a persistent drumbeat would start of asking for whatever had caught their attention. Children are relentless when they want something. And that was just toys.

Fast forward and picture today’s elementary school children a decade from now, standing on the west coast of Florida and asking "Mommy where are all the seagulls?" We could lose the gulf of Mexico just as the Europeans lost parts of the Rhine 30 years ago because of chemical dumping. They cleaned up most of it but it took a very long time. Children are very intuitive and even now they are starting to understand how bad a mess their parents have made, and left for them to clean-up.  

I believe the backlash against Big Oil will rival the “Not in My Backyard” movement against nuclear power plants that started after Three Mile Island and was cemented into our global consciousness with Chernobyl.  No nuclear plant has been built on American soil in more than 30 years, and despite the best efforts of the industry, lukewarm presidential support and the industry's PR people, it’s still a giant maybe.

If 1970s apathetic teens could fight the battle against nuclear – our kids should be able to shut down deep sea drilling.

Optimism is a rare commodity these days , but a new generation of environmentalists might just be our best hope yet.  

Saturday, June 5, 2010

What Were BP's PR Executives Thinking?

 I was out having a couple of drinks with a friend last night who runs marketing for a consulting firm. He's a bright guy and of course we started talking about BP and the Gulf and what the company and CEO Tony Hayward should and shouldn't be doing from a PR standpoint. A few of the steps it's taken:

  • Several weeks of silence during which you could hear the lawyers time clocks going Cha -Ching while they desperately tried to figure out what to do and what  to say.
  • Hired a Bush loyalist who worked at DOE as the energy corporations were creating their own regulations or lack thereof. THer next boss was Dick Cheney which I won't even bother to comment on. Suffice it to say that the environment has never been a priority.
  • A $50 million ad campaign that has BP's chairman doing too little to late. As the company has finally said it's no longer trying to plug the leak, he's out saying they're sorry and they're working on it.
Every PR expert who doesn't have BP or energy work is going to weigh in on this with some version of a crisis communications plan that fell short of what it should. That's pretty obvious.

What's not obvious and I think unexpected is the rage that ordinary Americans feel against this company and the energy industry. And the incredible similarities that President Obama has finally taken notice of between what happened in the Gulf of Mexico and what happened in the nuclear industry after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Drill baby drill has become Kill baby kill. Not in my backyard is going to become not in my ocean - no way.

It's not just the images of the oil slicked beaches and dying wildlife and people of  New Orleans and other places, lamenting the loss of their way of life. It's the mood of country. Notice how the tea baggers have been very silent since this happened. Keeping their mouths shut is all they've got. Or they'll get dragged into the oil slicked mud right behind BP.

So what should BP have done?

Don't Lie. Lying about the extent of the spill was just plain stupid. It would have been much smarter to say we don't know how bad it is, we're still trying to figure it out. Far better than saying the spill was smaller than BP knew it was. That means rich corporation caught lying to American people - not unusual perhaps, but in this situation a way to build really bad will.

Don't Spend Money that Should Be Used to Help People on Advertising.  This is just idiocy. The CEO of BP blew it already, to put him on paid advertisements just makes it worse. Better he should get himself down to the affected areas - with body guards if he needs them - and talk to the people who live there.

Let the news cover it. Donate money to the fisherman whose world has just been destroyed - create a Foundation to help their families during this time. Demonstrate you care by doing something that matters not making yourself less of a villian. Don't underestimate the intelligence of the American people - even though that's a very popular thing to do these days. Eventually they will get it.

Educate the Public About What Really Happened. BP is going to get stuck paying for the vast majority of this mess anyway. So go out and explain to the best of your knowledge what really happened otherwise it's just rumor which makes it look worse. Many companies were involved - the system failed in multiple points. Mea culpa. We didn't have a contingency plan. This may be the biggest oil spill in the history of this country and it's going to take a long time to fix it. But in the meantime, we have thousands of scientists studying what happened and making sure it will never, ever happen again. Here's what we're learning as we go.

Get Environmentalists To Help You Figure it Out - Why is BP going out and hiring all of the people who worked for the Bush administration and are in part responsible for creating a world where energy companies could operate without any rules? Bring the environmentalists to the table. Get Al Gore to the table. Get the World Wildlife Federation to the table. Just the very act of asking for help of the people who have been predicting this makes it look like BP is doing something.

Most important, BP's  advisors should be people who have demonstrated that they care about the environment we live in. Not those who sold it to the oil companies.