Communicating climate science for business leaders, investors and the public is more critical than ever. So why are scientists so bad at it?


Communicating climate science for business leaders, investors and the public is more critical than ever. So why are scientists so bad at it?

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Expert communicator and publisher Kylie Ahern says climate communicators need to talk directly to their audiences, listen, learn and then communicate.

CEO, serial entrepreneur, founder, publisher and science journalist Kylie Ahern is one of the most influential advocates for science today. Her work, including co-founding Cosmos magazine, founding science engagement agency STEM Matters and launching the global science communications publication The Brilliant, has set a new standard for science communications. Her work has helped unlock millions of dollars for research and attract a growing number of new scientists to the field. Climate & Capital Media’s Blair Palese talked to her about why climate scientists and experts are notoriously bad at communicating and whether this is improving as businesses, investors and governments ramp up efforts to find and deliver climate solutions.

Blair: Why is climate science communication — and doing it well — so important right now not only for the public but for those in business, investment and finance?

Kylie: Optimism underpins action. Right now doom-ism is creating an apathy that enables politicians to do less. An educated and hopeful society will push politicians to create the right policy levers that enable the transition to renewables. This isn’t some fluffy desire. Understanding who your audience is and creating content that actually engages them, works. Rupert Murdoch has spent decades using the power of storytelling to undermine climate action and science. It’s not magic, it’s a bonafide skill set that is often being ignored by those who need it the most.

My days are filled with talking to researchers and entrepreneurs and the gulf between the stories being told versus the actual and potential impact is widening. People are confused, the skill set for explaining why you exist and why someone should invest or partner with you is really lacking. And that’s not a problem if you then invest in the people who do it and give them agency, but that just isn’t happening. 

Good storytelling trumps PR every time

This comes down to two things: assuming that media alone should do this job and not valuing storytelling in the same way you do science, technology and discovery. 

Clearly early efforts to communicate the science of climate change and the speed of impacts we see unfolding have been communicated badly for a long time — where did experts go so wrong?

In the 1990’s before the internet, if you wanted to reach audiences, you had to go through the media. You sent a press release, spoke to journalists and they would take that all-important step of turning your issue or idea into a readable story. Thinking about the audience and creating an engaging piece of content was done by journalists and media outlets. 

When the internet became a thing and you could reach audiences directly, instead of learning from the media about how to engage audiences, organizations effectively republished promotional material — the thin stuff of press releases — and thought that that was enough. 

“Don’t get me wrong, disinformation campaigns are despicable, but there is a pitiful effort to understand how to counter it”

Good storytelling trumps PR every time. You don’t go to a website for press releases, you go to websites that have great content. 

When this transition from media to websites and social media was happening, trust wasn’t built, so ensuring understanding and accelerating real conversations started to falter. 

The world has never had so much science and technology than we do today, but the public understanding and support for that is going backwards. 

Don’t get me wrong, disinformation campaigns are despicable, but there is a pitiful effort to understand how to counter it. We have so many brilliant creatives in the arts and so many young people creating amazing content, but there is not enough reaching across the aisle to tap that.

Communicating facts isn’t enough, you’ve got to understand and respect your audiences and work relentlessly to engage them. 

How much does the shrinking number of independent media outlets globally and splintering of media communicating science impact our understanding of complex issues like climate change? Any expert suggestions about what scientists and experts should do to improve it?

This is so simple. Stop producing press releases and start working with great communicators and creatives. Bring in the publishers, bring in the content creators and give them freedom to create audiences around your work. 

If you look at the World Economic Forum and the Mayo Clinic, they are producing content based around what their audiences want to read, not solely about themselves. They have become trusted sources of information, you can’t do that if your website is a repository for press releases dressed up as content. 

My team at STEM Matters took this approach with the Queensland Brain Institute eight years ago where we shifted their communication strategy from a series of press releases to becoming a destination point around information about the brain. The result? In the first three years they increased their research donations by $30 million. 

You have to think about the behavioral shift you need and plan a content strategy around that. 

“It may be uncomfortable to reach out to those far outside your peer group, but it will pay off”

I walk the talk on this. In 2020, after years of hearing communicators and scientists asking me for advice about convincing their bosses to value their communication work, I launched The Brilliant, a global science communication publication. The Brilliant celebrates and shines a light on the scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, comedians, activists, poets, TikTokers, astronauts, communicators who are doing brilliant work in engaging people with complex ideas. It’s through their diverse voices and work that you understand just how important outstanding communication is if you want to galvanize action on an issue. I am constantly blown away by the generosity and humility of people who work in science and science communication. Publishing The Brilliant makes me a better publisher and communicator…I am always learning. 

The Brilliant has a social mission — to change how the STEM sector values and invests in communication but it also has a business mission, to promote my work as a global leader in science engagement. Every content strategy needs both — you need the business mission to make the social mission sustainable. 

Be prepared to listen and learn from young people about how to engage young people. The hierarchy of science doesn’t exist in the media. I am a publisher and science communicator and I am better at what I do because I am learning from every generation, from every viewpoint. 

It may be uncomfortable to reach out to those far outside your peer group, but it will pay off. 

Is there any science specialty area that you think is communicating well and why?

Astronomy — they are brilliant at it. They have been for decades. It’s a lazy assumption that space is naturally inspiring because they have cool images. It helps of course, but actually what is very clear to me is that for astronomy, storytelling is important. They do it so well!

Late last year, I had the privilege of meeting up with Paul Propster, Chief Story Architect, StoryLab at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. What impresses me about NASA is their team’s absolute commitment to engaging people with their work — it’s in their DNA. But just as critically and often overlooked by organizations is helping scientists, technologists and engineers tell their stories internally. This is what impressed me about Paul’s work — he brings an extraordinary level of creativity to helping the folks at NASA JPL explain to their colleagues and funders why their work is critical. 

“If you can’t convince your colleagues of the importance of your work and galvanize their support, how do you expect to convince the broader community?”

I also witnessed this level of commitment 18 months back, while working with X, The Moonshot Factory (a division of Alphabet). It’s an extraordinary organization employing a diverse group of inventors and entrepreneurs who build and launch technologies designed to improve the lives of people across the planet. They have dedicated resources to helping their inventors stand up and clearly explain their work, their vision, their desired impact and the blocks to getting there, to their colleagues. 

If you can’t convince your colleagues of the importance of your work and galvanize their support, how do you expect to convince the broader community? The great STEM organizations understand that. 

What’s your advice do you have for those, including media like us, trying to communicate an accurate picture of how fast our climate is changing and what it means to the world we live in?

Sit down and talk to people about what THEY want to know, their fears, their hopes. If you don’t understand your audience backwards and forwards, you simply will never engage with them. 

Stop underestimating people

I truly believe we underestimate the public — and that includes business, investors and those working on policy — all of the time. There are so many individuals who, if activated, will change the world around them. Look at Greta Thunberg. Look at Carl Sagan — their impact is extraordinary. Don’t give up, stop underestimating people and focus on how the audiences you need to engage with can be partners in communicating what you do and what’s important for them and the world to know about what you do. 

Written by

Blair Palese

Blair Palese is co-founder and managing editor at Climate & Capital Media. She is also director of philanthropy at Australia's oldest ethical financial adviser. Previously she co-founded Australia and was CEO for ten years. She was head of PR for The Body Shop and communications director at Greenpeace internationally and in the US. Blair has worked for media outlets including Greenpages Magazine, the Washington Monthly and ABC in the U.S.