Engagement | John Besley


John Besley is the Ellis N. Brandt Professor of Public Relations at Michigan State University who studies public opinion about science and scientists’ opinions about the public in the context of trying to help science communicators be more strategic. You can watch this short video, download the full transcript, and get highlights from the interview below.

“When I think of public engagement activities, I think of engagement activities that were designed to get people to do more than just process peripherally but to do the process centrally.”
– John Besley, Ellis N. Brandt Professor of Public Relations, Michigan State University

2018 Interview Highlights:

AAAS defined engagement as requiring mutual learning on both parts. What do you think of that definition?
I love AAAS, but I do not love their definition. I’ve suggested at various times that they might want to reconsider the definition, because it’s not really accurate. They argue that mutual learning is a very broad term, so what I call changes in beliefs, they would call mutual learning. I think that is how they finesse the point. But I think the problem with mutual learning is, it still frames it as a question. “I learn about you, you learn about me.” But learn what about you? And you learn what about me? Until we get to that more detailed conversation about what we mean, what beliefs are being learned or brought onboard, it’s not that helpful.

How are you measuring engagement in your work?
We’re measuring engagement activity, as well as attitudes, norms, and beliefs around engagement, goals for engagement, and objectives for engagement. We’re asking things like “About how much are you doing of this, and how are you doing it? How willing would you be to do this or that? How willing are you to take part in face-to-face events? How much are you willing to communicate online? How much are you willing to interact with scientists? How much have you done? How often?” We measure lots of things around engagement, including the amount of engagement and people’s willingness to engage.

We’ve been using a fairly simple set of measures adapted from various communication approaches, the same way that scientists have measured how often people donate money to a charity, how often they read a newspaper. We measure engagement using four different groups: face-to-face interactions, online, directly with policymakers, and through the news media. But you could break each of those down into as many subcomponents as you want.

How do you see motivation and interest compared with engagement?
I would say that one objective of public engagement might be to get somebody interested or motivated to learn more about science or to seek out scientific information. On its own, interest could be an objective. Similarly, identity could be an objective. A person might do engagement in order to convince others that that person is not that different from them, that they have a shared identity. Or an objective could be to get people to believe that they’re the type of people who could be scientists, that they have the ability to do it. I would think of that as self-efficacy. Once you’ve chosen your objectives and goals, then you start thinking about tactics. The tactics to me become pretty clear once the objectives are clear.

We use strategy for the whole process. We say that a strategic communicator is somebody who figures out their goals, uses theory to figure out which objectives to achieve to get their goals, and then figures out tactics. Strategy is knowing that path from goals to objectives to tactics.

What is your interest in studying engagement, and what does the concept of engagement mean in your work?
The people who study online engagement or social engagement on media talk about the hierarchy of a ‘like’ versus a ‘share’ versus a ‘comment.’ What’s the difference between those things? A ‘like’ indicates very little cognitive engagement, whereas a ‘share’ indicates that the person was thinking a little more. To comment takes a lot more engagement. It’s that cognitive element that underlies all of this. Personally, I’m interested in public participation activities, where scientists are interacting with the public directly, through face-to-face contacts or online or directly with policymakers. Any time a scientist is communicating, I think it’s an opportunity to foster engagement in a cognitive sense, and to me that’s public engagement.

How are you studying engagement in your research?
We’ve been involved in a project with Anthony Dudo where we’ve been surveying scientists, as well as interviewing science communication trainers, about how scientists think about public engagement and science communication. We’re really interested in what they think about engagement activities, what different activities they’re doing, and how much of each type they’re doing. We found it really helpful to think about engagement activities as leading to changes in beliefs, and those changes in beliefs are ultimately the levers that lead to changes in behavior.

What about scientists who believe that if people understood how particular things work in nature, they would extrapolate that to social systems and there would be benefits for society?
If that were true, the scientists should be able to prove that. It’s not like people haven’t tried. We’ve tried to look at the relationship between various types of knowledge and people’s attitudes or behavior. There’s a minor effect, not a big one. But scientists don’t want to just communicate for the sake of communicating. They want something to happen because they communicated. So to make that thing happen, you have to think about the short-term objectives you need to get to that goal. 

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