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Promoting the Practice and Profession of Statistics—ASA Public Relations Coordinator Jeffrey A. Myers

1 May 2013 147 views One Comment
Marie Davidian

Marie Davidian

For the first few decades after I joined the ASA in 1980, I was often heard lamenting (ask my husband) that, despite the importance of our discipline to science and society, we statisticians seemed reluctant to promote ourselves in a significant way to fellow scientists and the public. And that, although our professional societies were ideally positioned to do this, they didn’t seem to be. Of course, it’s one thing to talk, which is all I did, and another to take initiative.

In 2006, someone did. Then ASA Executive Director Bill Smith recognized the need for improving the ASA’s public relations capabilities. He hired a part-time consultant, Rosanne Desmone, who, for six years, helped with developing press relations, reorganizing the ASA’s “media expert” list, and improving the ASA’s communications with the media in general. She also helped publicize JSM, working diligently to attract the media to the world’s largest annual gathering of statisticians.

Over the past several years, the burgeoning media focus on data has intensified calls from many of us for the ASA to take an even more active role in publicizing the contributions of statistics and statisticians. In 2012, the ASA staff and board leadership acknowledged that this level of outreach required full-time public relations assistance. The upcoming International Year of Statistics, with the ASA’s 175th anniversary right behind, served as the final impetus for the decision to reorganize resources so a full-time public relations coordinator could be hired.

And we were fortunate, indeed. Jeffrey A. Myers joined the ASA in this role in July 2012 with more than two decades of experience in public relations in the Army, insurance industry, and private consulting, outlined in his profile in the April issue. I have had the privilege of working with Jeff on several initiatives and am excited to see how his efforts are already paying off. I asked him to discuss his activities and the challenges and opportunities he sees for our profession.

What are the similarities and differences between public relations activities in your previous positions and those you are undertaking for the ASA?

First, I am excited to be at the ASA. It is a great organization with active members, and I very much enjoy working with the volunteers—from the leadership to individual members—and everyone on the fantastic professional staff.

The biggest difference for me, personally, is working in science. Each previous career stop was with a nonscientific organization, although one could argue that insurance can be as complicated. So, that part of the job is an ongoing learning process.

As for the similarities, those abound simply because the tools necessary for effective communication—building relationships, managing media relations, writing press releases, developing promotional items, pitching stories, creating web resources, etc.—remain constant, regardless of the field.

What have you learned about statistics and statisticians, and what do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities to promoting the field and the ASA to the public and the media?

I have learned that statistics is a crucial part of our everyday lives and that statisticians are passionate about their profession. These two elements are essential to telling the story of statistics to the media—the former because it personalizes statistics and the latter because statisticians, who are experts in their chosen field, are excellent spokespeople.

The biggest challenges I see are the public’s limited understanding of statistics, the myth that statistics is sports numbers, and the “Intel Inside factor.” In this phenomenon, statistics is part of a larger body of work, for instance a scientific discovery, and it isn’t easy to distinguish the statistical contribution from that of another scientific discipline. We must separate the contributions of statistics to scientific advancements and breakthroughs, for example the role of statistics in drug development, and relay these real contributions to the media and the public. These interesting, compelling, and timely stories will help carry our message to the public.

Conversely, there are positives for increasing interest in statistics, namely the Big Data movement, the positive publicity Nate Silver has generated, growing interest in statistics by high-school and college students, and the International Year of Statistics, which is a global public relations campaign that is raising awareness of statistics.

Describe some of the things you have done and plan to do to raise awareness of statistics and statisticians.

One thing is Statistics2013, but I will expand on this later.

Another is building relationships and pitching statistics stories to the media. We are off to a strong start in getting statistics in front of the public through the media. For instance, the ASA is hosting a recurring statistics blog on the Huffington Post Science page. This blog places statistics before an influential audience. Additionally, a number of articles have been published by The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, McClatchy Newspapers, and others. And, a couple ASA letters to the editor have been published that corrected mis-statements about statistics.

While we are having initial success, there remains much more work to be done. I want to build new relationships with reporters and cultivate interesting stories that will appeal to the media and the public. Last, we must identify ASA members who are natural communicators and arm them with the knowledge and tools to be effective spokespeople for the statistics profession.

What do you see as some of the major accomplishments of the International Year of Statistics campaign so far, and what future accomplishments do you hope to see by the end of 2013?

The first significant accomplishment is that nearly 1,900 organizations in 121 countries have joined the campaign, and many are carrying the message to the public. This multiplying effect has greatly expanded the messaging reach far wider than the ASA and other founding organizations could do alone. A couple countries doing an incredible public relations job are Bulgaria and Mexico. And, we have numerous links—from all over the world—to Statistics2013 stories.

Also, we have built an information-packed, public-oriented website that is educating people around the world about statistics. This website will be beneficial to the ASA and other statistics organizations beyond 2013.

Perhaps the largest accomplishment to date is that the campaign is engaging statistical organizations in public outreach activities, many for the first time. This is good from the perspective of getting organizations accustomed to communicating and working with the media.

In the past, statistics and statisticians have not gotten the greatest press. Recently, that seems to have changed. Have you found the media to be receptive to your efforts to promote the field? What are the biggest misconceptions the media have about statistics and statisticians?

While I’d like to claim credit for the favorable media perception, Nate Silver’s successes predicting the outcome of the last two presidential elections have helped make editors and reporters more receptive to statistics. However, the media, while more knowledgeable, still does not fully understand statistics. That’s where statisticians enter the equation. It is critical for them to be ambassadors for the profession and to be effective in message creation and delivery.

Unfortunately, many less-enlightened reporters still perceive statisticians as part of the “nerdy pocket-protector set.” I think as we introduce reporters to statisticians, they will gain a positive impression of statisticians and their work.

You cannot single-handedly alter the public perception of statistics. How can ASA members become involved in shaping the image of statistics and statisticians on the local, national, and international levels?

It is essential that every ASA member participate in building a better image for the profession. It can be as simple as contacting a reporter about a story. This outreach establishes you as a source for the reporter on statistics issues. You can write a letter to the editor regarding a story that ran in your local paper. Seek out opportunities to speak about statistics at public forums—for example, civic organizations and local government meetings—that reporters often attend. You also can contact me for assistance or advice for working with the media.

By being active, ASA members can balance the public narrative about statistics and ensure their voice is being heard by the media and the general public. Otherwise, the “lies and damn lies” about statistics will continue unchecked.

I hope you will embrace Jeff’s call to join the ASA’s outreach efforts! If you have ideas or need help, you can reach him at jeffrey@amstat.org.

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One Comment »

  • Jamie izaks said:

    Thanks for the post Marie. Indeed, statisticians do have a somewhat stereotyped persona, hmm? But the reality is, as franchise PR agencies start to do do more social media and blogging, the stats that they talk about need to be confirmed by our friendly number checkers.