What exactly do we mean by evidence-based practice, and how can we apply it to the field of communications?  I had about 30 minutes to discuss this last month during a teleconference on crisis management with California Department of Public Health Director Dr. Karen Smith and local public information officers listening in from across the state. I needed to level with them that, frankly, we are only just now defining what evidence-based practice means – and how much it means – to the those of us who communicate with diverse, and often stressed out, public audiences and stakeholder groups.

Google the term “evidence-based practice” and you’ll find upwards of 67 million results; the most prominent tend to reference medicine, where EBP has really caught on. But EBP has revolutionized many fields beyond medicine – including education and criminal justice – and a recent afternoon spent researching the phrase in public and academic databases reaped no single definition and more variants than are worth itemizing in this blog post.

My afternoon of online research also turned up no situation – besides our own here at pio360 – where the systematic blending of real-world best practices and research insights is applied to the field of communications.  That’s a validation that the approach we’re taking is unique and sorely-needed. It’s also an opportunity to define evidence-based practice in a way that’s most helpful to communicators. As I discussed with the PIOs in California, our definition is based on several key goals, including:

  • To replicate the successes in other fields that come from combining real-world best practices with deeper research understandings
  • To avoid the extremes, such as
    • Research-heavy documents that lack accessible and practical applications, or
    • Overly-simplistic media coaching that focuses mostly on helping you please journalists with good quotes  vs. strategically leveraging media and other stakeholders as part of broader civic and organizational goals
  • To foster ongoing and evolutionary progress in which research and practice constantly build on each other

That last bullet merits a bit of explaining.  You’ve probably heard me talk already about pio360’s evidence-based “Communications Ecosystem.”  Ideally, we want to navigate that ecosystem through a constantly evolving understanding of how research informs practice and how practice informs research.

Let’s look at a couple examples to see how the insights can indeed go both ways:

I recently advised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of New Hampshire for a joint study on social media usage during the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.   Among other things, this research shed light on the importance of rumor control and long term SM engagement that needs to happen before, during and after a crisis.  This has helped me and other practitioners refine our guidance to colleagues and clients about how and when to deploy social media. It’s a clear case where research has informed best-practices.

On the flip side, veteran practitioners who deal with the media and the public have long known to avoid negative wording and imagery, even when trying to prove a positive point.  Back when I was a strategic communications executive at a major university, for instance, I cringed when one of our academic deans told reporters, “it would be a slap in the face to the health department if we didn’t include them in this safety review.” All anyone could think about after hearing that quote was “slap in the face” (local reporters certainly seized on the phrase).   That’s why we call something a “challenge” instead of a “problem,” an “issue” instead of a “scandal,” and so on.

It turns out that this longstanding communications best practice about avoiding negative wording has a research underpinning.  In cognitive neuroscience, there is something called “associative activation.”  The brain makes preconscious, involuntary associations between stimuli and emotions. Negative wording is the kind of stimuli that triggers a cascade of related negative ideas, faster than – and regardless of – the logical context within which you’re using that language.

Associative activation theory was not developed with media training or crisis communications in mind, but it helps explain one of our best practices. What’s more, it leads to additional insights and underpinnings:  Associative activation applies not just to words, but also to facial expressions (useful for spokesperson training) and images (good to know for crisis communicators looking to allay fears stoked by SM posts and news reports featuring images of graphic destruction or misery).

Hopefully these examples will give you a sense of how we can sharpen our communications skills most effectively when we combine the best of both the practitioner’s and researcher’s world.   And as you see, our inquiry spans multiple disciplines and areas of expertise.  Even in established fields like medicine, we are increasingly seeing a transdisciplinary approach applied to evidence-based practice.

This transdisciplinary mindset applies even more as we situate EBP within our industry. That’s because communications is just about the most pan-disciplinary field I can think of.  Depending on the day and job description, the communicator may be dealing with science, politics, HR, medicine, critical infrastructure, math, technology, agriculture, energy, marketing, philosophy and just about any other field you could rattle off.

-Richard Sheehe Click Here to subscribe to the PIO360 blog