Communication is Power: Here’s How Entomologists Can Use It
By Jiri Hulcr, Ph.D., and Cara Gibson, Ph.D.
Entomological research can tell us a lot about how to make the world a better place. We know how to keep bees healthy, agriculture more sustainable, and forests more resilient. So, why is it so difficult to get this information across to others?
One answer is because most complex entomological messages have a hard time competing in the modern jungle of professionally crafted media.
People today are exposed to more information than at any point in history. About a quarter of American adults say they are “almost constantly” online, while the average American adult spends 11 hours each day interacting with some form of media, and teens spend more than six hours a day staring into their screens. This means that many of us are now spending more than half of our waking lives in online worlds that were created by someone who wanted our attention. Unfortunately, however, humans’ ability to process this information has not kept pace with its explosion.
It is encouraging to see many entomologists growing big followings on social media. We applaud colleagues who are successfully facilitating more hands-on science experiences for citizens of all ages and helping urbanites with their nature deficits. But, statistically speaking, even with a million YouTube views or thousands of followers, we are still not getting enough attention for science-based change at broad-enough scales.
So, how do we send successful signals through the information avalanche? Let’s see what an entomological communication success story can look like:
The southern pine beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis) is probably the world’s most aggressive bark beetle. In the latter half of the 20th century, this beetle killed millions of pines in plantations every year in the Southeastern United States. Forest entomologists had shown that forest thinning was the best defense against the beetle. This practice also prevents wild fires and promotes diverse wildlife. Back then, however, the use of widespread thinning was not the status quo and required a change in forestry culture. So, a group of U.S. Forest Service entomologists and foresters worked together with state foresters and crafted the Southern Pine Beetle Prevention program , first introduced in 2003. Through this program, and in collaboration with two key members of Congress, congressional funding was appropriated. This triggered widespread adoption of a program that, as of today, has facilitated proper management of more than a million acres of pine lands. This communication campaign succeeded because it had a clear and simple objective and a strategically chosen audience.
Strategic communication has influence, and influence is power, as our colleagues and we outline in “Influence Is Power: Strategic Communication for Entomologists” in the Summer 2019 issue of American Entomologist. That is why American businesses from healthcare to finance put an average of 10-20 percent of their revenue back into self-promotion and marketing. We suggest that entomologists, and academia as a whole, can take several powerful lessons from the contemporary world of strategic communication:
First, the strategy. Professionals recommend designing your communication strategy from the end goal backwards. First define what you want to accomplish. If you have a disciplined, specific, and realistic objective, everything else should be straightforward. The objective defines which audience is the best to target with your information and influence and what you want them to do. Only then do you select the medium, and the content comes last. While generating the content may be the most work, it will only be effective if the other parts of your strategy have been clearly thought out.
Second, if you want to go far, don’t go it alone. The investments businesses make into their marketing are not to train workers or managers in public relations but rather to pay communication professionals. From market research to personalized media production, modern strategic communication is a sophisticated battlefield. If an entomologist is to succeed in grabbing even a little bit of attention of the targeted audience, the information vehicle has to be professional enough to stand out in the dizzying cognitive landscape facing the recipient. At the same time, scientists’ research is not a trivial pursuit either, and the grinding progress toward new knowledge requires our full focus. We believe that, instead of forcing scientists to do two jobs and being less effective in each, the academic enterprise should invest in communication specialists just as other industries do. It will pay off.
Last, communication needs to be supported and rewarded. In the current research and academic environment, why bother to communicate when our careers are measured by completely different metrics? The current system of evaluating a scientist’s or educator’s impact is outdated. One can spark love for insects in an entire generation of online followers, and it counts for less than a few obscure academic publications. We encourage the entomology community to discuss the dearth of investment into, and rewards for, science communication with university and agency administrators.
Let’s do our best for the bugs, for the planet, and for our future.
Jiri Hulcr, Ph.D., is an associate professor of forest entomology at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Website: www.ambrosiasymbiosis.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Cara Gibson, Ph.D., is an entomologist, educator, and illustrator based in British Columbia, Canada. Website: www.caragibson.com. Email: email@example.com.