Well, I never thought I’d be quoting Pete Campbell on anything, let alone in a panel on science communications.
I am, of course, referring to one Peter Campbell, the whiny rat of a character on the television show Mad Men on AMC, played by actor Vincent Kartheiser. Pete is the smarmy, hotshot account executive of the show’s fictional advertising agency, and to be fair, the character is growing (painfully).
In the episode “At the Codfish Ball” the other week, Pete found himself having to explain his job to a doubting academic. The exchange*, at a black tie dinner, went like this:
Pete: “… so I manage those accounts.”
Dr. Calvet: “But I don’t understand. What do you do everyday.”
Pete: “Well what do you do? You’re a scholar and an intellectual, right?”
Dr. Calvet: “Yes…”
Pete (turning up the smarm): “Actually from what I hear, you’re a bit of a trailblazer.”
Dr. Calvet (sheepishly): “I don’t know if it’s true…”
Pete: “I bet the world would be better off if they knew about the work you were doing.”
Dr. Calvet (flattered): “You’re very kind…”
Pete (with a supercilious smirk): “That, Emile, is what I do every day.”
And that is also what press officers do every day — of course with a great deal more humility than show-off Pete here.
Sometimes it is hard to explain what we do to the researchers we assist. I’ve had one researcher say to me “well, if all this publicity is supposed to get me more funding, I’ve never seen a dime of it.” And on the other end of things, sometimes the unfamiliar public isn’t quite sure why there are writers working at scientific agencies or research organizations.
We are, in fact, in the advertising business. We market science — we promote scientific information and discoveries, and figure out how to take a dense concept and package it in an accessible way so others see the value of that science. We create taglines and catchphrases, come up with graphics and videos, and we try to get airtime to showcase that science.
I shared the Mad Men clip with grad students attending the Seeds of Science Communications workshop at UC Davis on Tuesday. Organized and led by doctoral student Lisa Auchincloss, this four-part seminar series brought together graduate student researchers from diverse fields — from microbiology to transportation technology — all of whom were interested in gaining the core insights on becoming an effective science communicator.
I might have gotten an earlier start in my science writing career had such workshops been offered while I was a student at UC Davis, so it’s great to see this seminar find success and an interested audience. Certainly, when I was an undergraduate, I had no clue that publicity and communication were such integral components of the pursuit of science.
So that was definitely one of my key messages that day to these future professors and researchers: be friends with your public information officer! The world would be better off if they knew all the cool science you were doing — and we’re here to help.
– Ben Young Landis
*Script by Jonathan Igla