A commentary on PR

by grouperlab

(OK–BC here, admitting to a shameless plug.  I am running for an Executive Council seat in the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, and while others have sent out “vote for me” messages, I thought it would make more sense if I made some commentary on what I was thinking about, so that people would have a clear indication of why they should–or shouldn’t–consider me.  So, this is the text of that commentary.)

Good morning / afternoon, colleagues and friends.  It’s a busy summer for everyone—so much so that I hope you won’t mind this belated reminder to make sure to vote for Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) Officers and Executive Council members…  You have two votes to make for Executive Council; I hope you are willing to use one of them for me.

This is a time of challenges, not just for HFES, but for many broad areas of human factors practice, research, and society.  It’s also a time for discussion and debate on how we might best meet those challenges.  For instance, the HFES discussion list recently included a consideration of writing Congressional representatives to address proposed reductions in social and behavioral research funding; others suggested that this might not be an effective (or ergonomic!) strategy.  If you are a US government employee, or at a university like mine with strict anti-lobbying concerns, you may not even see a letter to your Senator or Representative as a legitimate option for you.  The Society must be able to address this range of perspectives, and demonstrate awareness that there are few simple solutions to organizational, social, and societal challenges, and we should avoid simplistic ones.

One issue that gives me frequent pause is one of effective communication and, for lack of a better term, “public relations (PR)”.  In another part of my life, I manage NASA education, engagement, and scholarship / fellowship programs for the State of Indiana.   I have been a space geek for most of my life; I forget that other people don’t get deeply involved in the richness of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education addressing the range of aerospace engineering and earth and space sciences.  So, it’s especially surprising for me when I have people ask questions such as “Why are they cancelling NASA?”  “Why is NASA preventing commercial space companies from working on vehicles?”  “Couldn’t we just go to Mars now instead of wasting money on the Space Station?”  Details aside, what causes me such surprise is that, although people are interested in this aspect of STEM in their lives, their understanding is highly limited—and really, whose fault is that?  In other words, why does NASA need PR?  Putting on my best human factors / macroergonomics hat, I know better than to just blame the user.  We who do the rocket science have to stop assuming that the rest of the world will immediately understand it the way we do, with the priorities we have.  PR is about learning those other priorities and understandings, and communicating our goals based on those criteria.

Although there are only a few thousand of us in HFES, I see some of the same concerns in play.  Without question, HFES seeks to be a society that promotes research, and our research is intended to improve the quality of human lives.  It sounds like an ideal area of application, investigation, and learning.  Is it true that the public doesn’t care about human factors?  I don’t know if I could go through a day of popular media and network television (especially not if I surf through the shopping channels) without a mention of “ergonomic” or “user design” or “safety” – the stuff we do all the time.  But if the public doesn’t know who we are, or what we’re doing, or how, it probably isn’t a great place to start to complain about their limited understanding of STEM and direct them to an advanced textbook.  (For much of the public, I am learning, any college level textbook is an “advanced textbook”.)  Whether you elect me for Executive Council or not, this is an issue that we face, and especially for a small professional society in this economic and political and social setting, effective PR may be more than an afterthought or necessary evil.  This is not just about the impact factor of this journal or the acceptance rate at that conference.  Our contributions to society are more vital, and more subtle, than that.  No matter what role any of us have in the Society, that is a task for all of us to address, a challenge for all of us to meet.