By Lily Gordon
Wedged between the Volcanology building and Lokey Laboratories in the heart of the University of Oregon’s Science Complex, Willamette Hall is not where one would just happen across a Public Relations or Journalism major. In the echoey atrium, students studying Physics, Computer Science and Math can be seen, heads bent over thick books and flashing screens. Willamette is the nucleus of the Physics Department, a subject most future PR practitioners are relieved to have left behind in high school.
Within the depths of kinematics and electromagnetic waves, there is a fountain of public relations knowledge. A hidden gem of expertise. His name is Professor Scott Fisher. In addition to being an advisor and astronomy lecturer within the Physics Department, Fisher is the Outreach Director. He has years of community outreach experience starting from his humble beginnings in Hawaii at the Gemini Observatory (one of the ten largest observatories worldwide) writing press releases, tabling at events and regularly chatting to the local news channel about the work being done at the observatory. Then came his time in D.C. with the National Science Foundation facilitating educational and grant-related programs. Now, the UO has snatched not only a great thinker in the astronomy world, but a PR one as well.
I sat down with Fisher to pick his brain about everything related to community outreach. In addition to being naturally predisposed to the communications field, he says he was born with extra helpings of schmooze, science, mathematics and “dashingly good looks.” Fisher understands how to bridge scientists’ complex ideas to the general public. While astrophysics and science in general may be a yawn-worthy field to some, (but a field with many, many, many PR jobs) it is one of the more challenging fields a PR practitioner can be tasked with strategically communicating. If a person, such as Fisher has, can get Aunt Martha in rural Florida or Hawaii to care about developments lightyears away, then that person can also communicate the messaging of more relatable brands such as Whole Foods, Nike, Tesla or Intel.
For those interested in job security and representing the future of the planet, there are a number of science classes targeted at non-science majors such as Fisher’s astronomy courses. But to get to the meat of it all, the following are key takeaways from my conversation with Fisher. One could call them “The Fisher Keys to Community Outreach Success.”
Know your audience.
“You can’t give the same spiel to every audience,” says Fisher. “It’s about the audience. It’s not about you, the PR person.”
This is core to any public relations plan, but even more so when tackling community outreach. Fisher has developed strategies in order to engage groups as varied as K-12 students to retirees in Central Oregon. And even when the demographics of two events are the same on paper, the value of personally interacting with the community and understanding what makes them tick cannot be underestimated.
Be flexible with the core message.
Once Fisher understands his audiences front and back, he likes to stay adaptable. “Quiet credentials” are an important tool in his kit. A public relations practitioner may know every fact, figure and anecdote pertaining to his or her client, but the real talent is knowing which select things to share with an audience. While a room full of professors may be impressed by your amazing resume and in turn care more about your client, second graders will not. Know what knowledge and experiences to share.
If people don’t care, it’s because they don’t understand.
“Don’t undervalue the interest of your audience in your topic,” Fisher says. “The best presentations and best stories I’ve written or interactions I have had, I’ve always felt that I covered all of the material I wanted to cover, but I left them wanting a tiny bit more.”
Scientists, stockbrokers and lawyers are often guilty of using too much jargon. They leave people wanting more— more of something they’ll actually understand. When it comes to community outreach, people first need to comprehend a subject, be it astronomy, homelessness or adoption, before they can care about it.