Toot Your Own Horn

Aggressive Self Promotion Just Might Be the Scientific Community's Saving Grace

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A scientific star was born when the rover Curiosity descended through the Martian atmosphere in August. Viewers watching NASA’s live feed were captivated as flight director Bobak Ferdowski guided the rover through “seven minutes of terror” to its final touchdown on the Red Planet. Bobak was dressed to kill—his Mohawk hairstyle sported red and blue highlights, offset with white stars bleached into the sides of his head.

“The Mohawk guy” was an overnight sensation. Tens of thousands of Twitter followers hung on his every tweet. President Obama hailed him for a job well done. In one fell swoop, he had achieved recognition and acclaim that can seem as unreachable as the furthest galaxy to scientists who labor in anonymity in labs around the world.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize a great career move when you see one. In his moment onstage, the Mohawk guy delivered. It was a surpassing stroke of self-promotion.

The stage beckons more scientists now. Scientific promotion was once an oxymoron. But as the global economic storm toys with the career dreams of many scientists, promotion is emerging as a 21st-century survival skill for the scientific community. University endowments are down and furloughs are up. Congress continues to tighten the purse strings of agencies funding research. There’s an oversupply of post-docs and grad students chasing fewer jobs while senior scientists struggle to attract grants. The competition has never been fiercer.

Enter the "M" word

“In today’s economic climate, lab managers regularly do great research that somehow fails to attract funding and support,” says Marc Kuchner. “Marketing is often the tool they are missing.”

Marketing, selling, promoting, positioning, branding— to some, these smack of vulgar business methods breaching and sullying the sacrosanct integrity of science. But as researchers consider their options in a time of tight money and a job market where supply exceeds demand, the utility of promotional and marketing techniques exerts considerable appeal.

Kuchner is an astrophysicist and author of Marketing for Scientists, a practicum that spans the gamut of promotional methods old and new—standbys such as conferences, presentations, and posters, and the recent wave of social media and Web technologies such as blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Want to spruce up that old poster? Try adding a bar code that re-directs scientists to your web site when scanned into their cell phone; several websites generate barcodes for free. Don’t forget to use good visuals, which are retained much better than words. Timid about using Web 2.0 social media technologies? About one-third of scientists avoid the blogosphere at all costs, but it’s a great venue for self-citation. Interested in knowing “Nine Scientifically Proven Ways to Get Re-tweeted on Twitter”? It’s one sure sign of successful self-promotion.

Like others scientists, Kuchner was conditioned to reject promotional impulses and initially found marketing “bewilderingly nonintuitive.” Then he discovered that the practice “already threads its way through the fabric of today’s scientific and academic institutions.”

“Scientists do things that are marketing, but we don’t label it as marketing,” says Marlene Winkelbauer-Hurt, manager of the Reed cell biology lab at Harvard Medical School. “We don’t take marketing classes or learn about it from that point of view, but when we write a grant proposal, we need to state the results to fit the goals of the funders.”

Kuchner contends that marketing is essentially the stuff of routine interpersonal commerce—nothing more than satisfying one another’s wants and needs, making connections. And as the funding bind continues to vex the scientific community, he believes his book will embolden lab managers to adopt a promotional, proactive approach to free up financial support and more—to attract talent, develop relationships and collaborations, and even shape public debate.

As director of marketing for Thermo Fisher Scientific, a leading laboratory supplier, Bill McMahon serves the global universe of lab managers. “There’s been a shift, in some ways generational and some ways by necessity,” he says. “More lab managers are curious about how to present themselves. They ask me about marketing, how to put some message out there.”

Others say the situation is reaching a tipping point: promote or perish.

If scientists “want projects to go forward…we have to learn how to ‘do’ marketing,” says John Mather, senior project scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2007 by Time magazine. “We have to learn it on the fly,” acknowledges Mather, “and don’t really know
what we’re doing.”

That’s where Kuchner comes in, and he’s not alone in suggesting that scientific enterprise would benefit from a more aggressive promotional posture. Other books in a similar vein include Am I Making Myself Clear? by Cornelia Dean, Don’t Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson, Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, Escape from the Ivory Tower by Nancy Baron, and Explaining Research by Dennis Meredith.

If it’s the worst of times for scientists in terms of funding, it’s the best of times to be of a mind to promote oneself, says consultant and author Meredith. The Internet has “immense power to make each person a media outlet,” capable of readily creating and dispensing print, video, and audio content. There’s even The Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program that mainstreams research by hooking scientists up with Hollywood as consultants for TV and films.

Not so fast, says Jim Austin, editor of Science Careers, a publication of Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“On the one hand, a certain kind of self-promotion is critical to anyone who is ambitious in science,” says Austin. “But it’s not a matter of saying ‘hey, look at me.’ It’s a matter of trying to be a part of things. The right approach, in my opinion, is a particular kind of networking that scientists have long taken part in, but maybe amped up a bit.

“You need to use the classic science dissemination tools to promote yourself. Go to conferences, present your work, attend other people’s talks at those conferences and ask questions, and introduce yourself and tell people what you’re interested in scientifically. Seek collaborations with other scientists and seek letters of support for grants and projects.

“These things involve you in science and also establish a social connection. If you are perceived as someone who promotes your science outside the normal channels, on your blog or wherever, then you run the risk of having some important and rather conservative scientists decide that you are a pretender.”

Fear of repercussions often inhibits self-promoters. The decision to take research outside the normal peer-review channels can be “deeply personal” according to author Nancy Baron, outreach director of the Communications Partnership for Science and Sea, and invites backlash. “Interdisciplinary work is especially prone to such conflict” because of turf battles. The new kid on the block can evoke jealousy, and when science interferes with corporate or special interests, it can provoke a reaction “which only pretends to be about the data.”

Observers can disagree about what constitutes proper promotion, but they’re inclined to coalesce around the notion that scientists have their work cut out for them. To advance in their careers, scientists formerly only needed to explain their work to other scientists. Now they have to tell it to the world. But scientists didn’t take classes like Communicating Science 101, and even routine presentations can leave much to be desired. “I’ve been at so many seminars where you can’t follow what they’re trying to present because (presenters) are in their small corner of the research world,” says Winkelbauer-Hurt. “Scientists don’t think about helping their audiences understand the significance of their work.” To develop empathy, Kuchner advises scientists to heed the acronym WIIFM (what’s in it for me) when considering what to say.

How to say it is another matter, and one of Kuchner’s favorite tips is about the power of props. Skip the elevator speech, and pack a memento instead. He begins his book with a story of how a scientist employed a mint plant cutting to convince a congressional kingpin to make a 180-degree turn on an issue. Speaking of storytelling, Kuchner says scientists should do a whole lot more of it, because it injects life into the tedious expositions of data that the profession is prone to.

As more scientists begin to throw around marketing terms like positioning and branding, Kuchner addresses their facility to attract the support of perfect strangers and pull in distant collaborators. Borrowing from the seminal writings of Al Ries and Jack Trout, he covers Ries and Trout branding law # 1—get there first in the prospect’s mind, because nobody remembers who finishes second. And if you can’t be the first in some category, move to law # 2—invent some new category where you can stake your claim to be No. 1.

“To launch a brand, it really helps to own a word,” says Kuchner. “A big part of owning a brand is coming up with a word that names it. The crazy thing is that scientists can achieve both goals at the same time—making up a brand name and owning a word. That’s because society gives scientists special license when it comes to making up words.”

The tricks of the marketing trade are well and good, says Kuchner, but at its heart, science marketing is about building relationships—“a new pillar of marketing.” Relationship building is not a trick—it turns on being real and authentic. “As corporate America is learning, you need to provide products and services that can withstand criticism all across the Internet, or they won’t come back.” He urges scientists to keep the marketing focus on ideas and research, not themselves.

An Internet site is not optional—for promotional purposes, there’s nothing better, assuming it is maintained and updated. “Like it or not, a lab manager’s identity (depends on) their Web footprint,” says McMahon. “If you have good content, and it’s fairly current, you’ll be higher in the search (results) and get more frequency. What I always say is…what do you want people to find on Google two years from now?” The best web sites have the right mix of research, outreach, and personnel, says McMahon; to attract other scientists, Kuchner says sites need to show “captions, passion and generosity.”

McMahon urges lab managers to develop their networking footprint as well. “Scientists are often very bright people who don’t like to talk about themselves, so this can be intimidating. But just being present at 10 different places over the course of a year—such as panel discussions or your former college—helps talent acquisition.”

McMahon recalls an incident from a former job when a new hire wanted to return to his university for a panel discussion. “One of my partners said, ‘That’s a silly expense; he doesn’t know anything about our company, and why do we want to fly him back when he just wants to go party?’”

I said, “That might be true, but he’s someone who loves our company and will say nothing but good things about it to 200 people. And if nothing else, he’ll leave behind the impression that our company is willing to let people leave the lab and interact, which is a neat thing to do.”

F. Key Kidder left journalism to pursue a career in government relations, politics, and PR, but he still likes to keep his hand in writing. He can be reached at k2@keykidder.com or by phone at 410-963-4426.

Categories: Business Management

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Toot Your Own Horn Magazine Issue Cover
Toot Your Own Horn

Published: November 2, 2012

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