Obama Takes Scientific Approach to Communication
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Economic troubles and what to do about them are not unlike climate change or biomedical research. Both economic policy and science policy can be deeply complex and uncertain and can easily be interpreted through the lens of ideology and partisanship. As a result, communicating about these issues should not be a guessing game, relying solely on intuition or experience to guide message design and the targeting of audiences. Instead they should be based on careful audience research.
From Bloomberg News:
President-elect Barack Obama's top political aides are transplanting their campaign tactics to the policy arena, using data from polls and focus groups to shape the debate over a stimulus plan that may cost at least $775 billion.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief political adviser, along with campaign media adviser Jim Margolis, are encouraging lawmakers to use the word "recovery" instead of recession, and "investment" instead of "infrastructure." Those recommendations came from focus-group research indicating that such framing would make the package more appealing to voters.
Obama officials are polling on how to frame the economic proposals for voters and what language should be used, Gibbs said. They want to know "how America reacts" to the president- elect's stimulus proposals and the public's "attitudes toward the economy," he said...
...Axelrod and Margolis encouraged the senators to change the way they were discussing the stimulus plan and adopt language that the aides had tested in focus groups, said a Democratic official briefed on the meeting.
...The two Obama advisers said the old way of talking about the plan sends the wrong signal, the Democratic official said, adding that the substance of the package was also discussed. The Democratic senators, including Dick Durbin of Illinois and Tom Carper of Delaware, were given data showing that about half the poll's respondents favored making huge investments that would expand government during a recession even if such measures result in a $1 trillion deficit.
In an interview this summer with Big Think (below), I discussed what this type of audience research would mean for structuring and planning public engagement efforts on science.