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Reflections on the Selective Science Communications Practice Group

by Katie McGrath-Novak

In this blog post:

Throughout this summary, you’ll find relevant follow-up resources in gold boxes.

What is the Selective Science Communications Practice Group?

Over the past three months, I’ve enjoyed thought-provoking and engaging discussion with dedicated forestry communicators across Colorado through the Selective Science Communications Practice Group.

Between March and May 2024, the Selective Science Communications Practice Group convened monthly as a ‘safe space’ for collaborative communicators to work through real challenges and opportunities together related to selective science issues in social media, face-to-face conversations, and the news.

The group formed in response to our August 2023 Branching Out session, hosted by our friends Hannah Brown and Brett Wolk from the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, titled “Panning for Nuggets of Science Gold: Reframing Forestry and Wildfire Management Communication.” We heard that the tips and tricks shared in this webinar were inspiring, and there was an appetite to practice them. Thus, the Selective Science Communications Practice Group was born!

“Don’t bring science to a values fight.”

Hannah Brown and Brett Wolk

Resource: Click here to watch the recording of our August 2023 Branching Out session, “Panning for Nuggets of Science Gold: Reframing Forestry and Wildfire Management Communication”. The slides are available here.

To set the stage:

    • This was NOT a science convincing class. We did not set out to teach people how to wield data as a weapon to change peoples’ minds. As Hannah and Brett shared in their initial presentation, “Don’t bring science to a values fight.”

    • Rather, this WAS meant to be a place to remove fear around science communication, practice having hard conversations using realistic examples and scenarios, identify fair and reasonable questions and how to answer them, and maybe commiserate a bit on how hard communication is!

Session 1: Social Media | Takeaways & Resources

We started our first session by “getting uncomfy” – participants had the opportunity to think outside of scientific perspectives to understand the values that emerge in common selective science narratives. Here are some of the values that participants have seen:

    • Recreation experiences & opportunities

    • Love of in-tact forests & sense of privacy that uncut forests offer

    • Fear of unsustainable forestry/timber practices seen across the country and the world; concern that those outcomes could be coming to Colorado

    • Wilderness – value of nature taking care of itself; beauty and value in ‘untouched’ or ‘natural’ landscape

    • Personal connection and history on a landscape drives what people have seen/felt; perhaps they want to continue to see/feel those things

We also left our comfort zones by turning a critical eye toward our own communication strategies and ways that we have perhaps unintentionally contributed to selective science narratives in the past. Participants were asked, “What words, phrases, or narratives have you used in your science communication that may have been confusing or misleading?” Here were some of the responses:

    • Fuels reduction

    • Thinning

    • “Science says…”

    • Implying that data = decisions

    • Resilience

    • Forest heath

    • Forest management

    • Risk reduction

    • Biomass

    • “Controlled” burn vs. “prescribed” burn

    • Silver bullet

    • Restoration

    • Wildfire mitigation

    • Forest treatments

    • Good fire

    • Megafire

We reflected on how these terms are not necessarily wrong or bad, but that when over-generalized and applied without relevant local context, they can actually contribute to selective science narratives. Additionally, several of the words and phrases (such as ‘treatment,’ ‘forest management,’ and ‘restoration’) do not have standard definitions that most audiences can agree on and understand.

“We can’t give everyone a Bachelor’s degree in Forestry through a social media post.”

Selective Science Communications Practice Group Participant

There is a difficult balance to strike between too much and too little information. As one participant pointed out, “We can’t give everyone a Bachelor’s degree in Forestry through a social media post.” While it is not feasible or necessary to share every fact, we also don’t want to oversimplify by leaving out important local considerations. Ultimately, several participants agreed that they will continue using some of the words and phrases listed above sometimes, but will be more mindful of making sure they include more nuance when they do.

In breakout groups, participants were asked to consider: 1) How could some of the confusing or misleading words and phrases listed above be improved?; and 2) Are science, values, decision-making, and narratives mutually exclusive?

Here were a few key takeaways from the breakout discussion:

    • I will add a little extra nuance to some of these buzzwords, but probably will still use them.

    • Stop oversimplifying everything – this can actually be counterproductive!

    • It’s important to respond on social media when possible because comments live there for people who visit your page in the future.

    • Consider changing the name of townhalls to be specific to the intended audience.

    • Context and audience matter!

    • “What’s the point?” Drive home the purpose of forest management activity.

    • Describe specific forest management actions instead of using blanket terms.

The remaining time in session 1 was spent in breakout groups drafting real responses to various social media comments.

Resource: Worksheet to help develop social media comment responses

We used the following guiding questions to help develop social media comment responses:

    • What is your initial reaction to this comment? Frustrated? Confused? Nervous? Thoughtful?

    • What is the nugget of science gold in this comment?
        • Common red flags: generalized science being localized, local science being generalized, or silver bullet solutions)

    • What narrative is the commenter supporting using the nugget of science gold?

    • What is the fair question in this comment?

    • How might you respond to this comment that addresses the fair question?
        • Don’t underestimate your audience’s intelligence, but also don’t just throw jargon at them to prove you have better science! General rule: start with the simplest way you can explain it, then add 15-25% nuance.

Resource: Guiding questions to help determine when to respond to social media comments

Both groups determined that it’s not always necessary to respond to every comment. They wondered how to make the decision to engage, leave the comment alone, or delete the comment. Though there is no real formula to determine which action to take in a given instance, here were a few factors the group identified that can help guide a decision:

    • Is the commenter asking fair questions?
    • Is the comment rude, profane, mean, etc.?
    • Is it coming from someone who is local, holds a stake in the project, or has some other meaningful connection to the project/landscape?
    • Could future visitors reading the comment thread learn from a response to the question?

We finished the session with a discussion about goals. Participants identified the need to really think through the goal of social media. Consider what your organization hopes to gain from social media, and use that to guide how to best spend your time managing social media.

Session 2: Face-to-Face Conversations | Takeaways & Resources


For our session on face-to-face conversations, I gathered a few articles about how to have difficult political conversations, because I realized that selective science conversations can sometimes feel similar to political conversations at the dinner table at family gatherings. Participants were asked to read at least one of the following articles before attending the session:

A few consistent themes that I noticed across most of the ‘how to have a good political conversation’ articles included:

Empathy Remember that your conversation partner is a whole person, not just their opinion.
Be a good conversation partner Listen and consider what the other person is saying, rather than just focusing on crafting your next rebuttal.
Set a goal What’s the point of this conversation? To convince? To be convinced? To understand each person’s perspectives?
Ask questions Be genuinely curious about why they feel this way, and what their underlying concerns/values might be.
Stay calm It is okay to embrace silence, or to take a breath if you feel you are getting worked up – there is power in pausing.

In our first breakout discussion for this session, I asked participants:

Tell the group about a time you felt like you failed in a face-to-face conversation. What went wrong? What emotions did you feel? What could you have done better? What advice does the group have?

When we returned to full group discussion, I asked everyone to share a key takeaway, insight, or lingering question from the breakout session. Here are some of the responses I received:

    • Facts don’t change minds!

    • Need to practice getting comfortable saying “I don’t know the answer to that question; let me read about it and we can talk more about it later.”

    • It’s difficult to know how much detail to give in a conversation with a member of the public.

    • Sometimes people just need to “make their speech” and feel heard, and then everyone can move forward.

    • It’s difficult to engage in productive conversation when you (and/or the other person) are coming from an emotional state.

    • The public often assumes big chunks of money are being spent on overhead. No matter what, some people will always be upset about how tax dollars are being used. How to explain cost per acre? 

    • The public often expects every member of an organization to be an expert in everything – as a facilitator, you’re allowed to set boundaries around the scope of the meeting to avoid focusing so much on topics you’re not an expert on. Let them know you hear them, and you want to allow that conversation another time but cannot answer their questions at this time.

With these takeaways in mind, we spent the next portion of the session running through roleplay prompts in pairs.

Resource: Roleplay Prompts

You can find the roleplay prompts for Group A here and Group B here.

After this activity wrapped up, I once again asked participants to share a key takeaway. Here are some of the takeaways:

“Maybe it’s low stakes all the time”

  • I don’t have to respond to every concern that someone brings up.

  • It was useful to think about the conversation from the perspective of someone else

  • Inviting further conversation is always good – invite them in!

  • It’s really hard to reenact what would be an emotionally charged conversation. However, it’s beneficial to walk through the steps of approximating one.
    • “Maybe it’s low stakes all the time” – Participants said they appreciated the opportunity to practice having tough conversations in a ‘low-stakes’ environment; one participant pointed out that – although it can feel really scary – maybe having difficult conversations isn’t so high-stakes after all!
  • I got sweaty/hot, which is a good reflection of how I sometimes feel in these situations. I appreciated the opportunity to talk through that feeling.

  • We can’t always assume the people making comments are local, or that they have seen any outreach we’ve put out before!

  • When you enter a conversation with your heels already dug in, it’s a lot harder to get out of it.

  • It’s okay to say “I like that too” – In one of the roleplay prompts, the “landowner” shares their love of the wind in the trees. One workshop participant noted that it’s okay to agree with the emotional connection someone has with the land, even if you disagree on how the land should be managed. In fact, it’s important to find these shared values because they can help you see one another as whole people, rather than as opponents or job titles.

“It’s okay to say, ‘I like that too'”


Session 3: News Media | Takeaways & Resources

Resources: Media Training

Below are a few resources we found with tips for communicating with media:

    • Navigating Controversial Topics in Media Interviews Pt. 1 & Pt. 2

Here are a few recurring themes that I noticed across many or all of the articles listed above, as well as some additional points that participants shared from their own experiences:

  • Ensure that the proper parties in your organization know about the interview
  • Preparation is key!
    • Develop a few (only a few!!) key messages and deliver them often.
    • Don’t be afraid to use bulleted notes on paper or your phone during the interview
    • Practice answering questions (especially the tough ones) out loud
  • Be personable & authentic. Share stories & personal anecdotes to make people care about your key points.
  • Be concise. Give simple, jargon-free, quotable “soundbite” answers.
  • Don’t guess when you don’t know the answer, speculate, entertain hypothetical situations, or speak for other organizations/people. Don’t speak “off the record”.
  • Listen carefully to the full question & think before you answer.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions or ask them to rephrase the question if you’re not 100% sure you understand.
  • Follow up after the interview with a thank you, a summary of key points, and any additional information if necessary.

“While it is important to be prepared, it is possible to over-prepare!”

Selective Science Communications Practice Group Participant

Our discussion began by asking folks with experience doing media interviews to share what it was like for them, and if there is anything they would add to the recommendations above.

Here are a few key points we gathered from that discussion:

People emphasized:

    • Taking a moment to quietly think before you answer – in the heat of the moment, it can be easy to forget a key point or not word something very well.

    • Write down your key points and don’t be afraid to glance at your list throughout the interview to make sure you’re covering what you wanted to cover (Important: Don’t write a script! But a few bullets can be useful).

People added:

    • Ask for the questions in advance so you can prepare! They might say no, but it doesn’t hurt to ask!

    • While it is important to be prepared, it is possible to over-prepare! You do not want to come off as robotic. Don’t be afraid to show up as a whole person, be authentic, and adapt to questions you might not have been expecting.  In fact, interviewers may try to specifically ask questions you’re not prepared for, not because they’re trying to trick you, but because they want to see your authentic side!

After hearing some wisdom from the recommended readings and participants with experience doing media interviews, we split into breakout groups to practice writing key points for a media interview. The worksheet we used was adapted from the worksheets below.

“What resonates with forest management professionals might not necessarily resonate with the general public.”

Selective Science Communications Practice Group Participant

Groups had 30 minutes to draft some possible talking points, and then we regrouped for a discussion. Here’s some wisdom folks gleaned from the activity:

    • When developing some quote-able soundbite-style messages, what resonates with forest management professionals might not necessarily resonate with the general public.
        • One participant shared this quote: “If we aren’t prepared to manage prescribed fire, then we aren’t prepared to manage wildfire.” – The participant shared that, although this quote initially resonated with some of the people in the group, upon further thought they realized the quote could have unintended consequences: it is a bit fear-based, demonizes wildfire, and potentially casts doubt on wildland firefighters’ abilities.

    • It is important to frame things in a positive way, even though that can be hard when the topics often revolve around wildfire and risk!

Resources that workshop participants recommended, specifically on wildfire-related communications:

Thanks to all who participated in our 2024 Selective Science Communications Practice Group!