Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Ethnography: An EPIC platform for spreading the word

In 2013 the international Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) took a foray into PR, with the objective of explaining the rationale for ethnography to new audiences. Here is a description of the two principal campaign strands. I conclude with three takeaways that strategy, research and design consultancies trying to get the message out might also find useful.

EPIC is a well-respected, thriving event that delivers on its mission to bring together leading practitioners and foster debate. That was reason enough for me to be involved a local organiser with a focus on arranging some of its networking events. But I could not resist bringing a PR lens to bear because of my background in it (which actually lead me to ethnography/anthropology). So I suggested EPIC should dip its toe in the water with a micro campaign to promote ethnography’s applications. This entailed working through the media and also direct engagement to reach high-level 'client-side' decision-makers.

Would anyone listen? I anticipated an uphill battle in part because of the widespread beliefs that the only behavioural insights of value flow from quantitative 'big data' (v.s. qualitative or mixed methods ethnography) and that the only skills worth having in innovative organisations derive from STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) training (v.s. the social sciences or humanities backgrounds of most ethnographers).

But I realised that we could also turn these beliefs to our advantage by challenging them, David and Goliath style. The prospect of doing this gave me personal satisfaction: One thing that experience as an ethnographer has taught me is that STEM thinking, narrowly construed, can’t on its own solve challenges in business and society.

Media relations: the approach and the outcome
When you want to make a complex case through the mainstream on and offline print media, which still has the greatest reach, two of the most appropriate formats are bylined articles that you write yourself and features put together by a journalist. They are not equivalent: Apart from lending themselves to different kinds of discussion the latter tend to carry more weight.

Journalists like pithy arguments. Ethnographers are
not so keen.

[Image: adapted original by Billy1847, used under a
creative commons licence (CC By 2.0)]
We chose the latter course, but in the knowledge that putting a complex topic in hands of another party to convey is inherently risky. In the case of ethnography, journalists cannot seem to get past the compelling if over-used image of the colonial era pith-helmeted anthropologist transplanted in time and place to a modern day suburban home or office.

On the rare occasions that journalists try to get beyond this image, because they have been granted more time or space by their editors than is usually available (the FT scores some points in this regard but is by no means perfect), they can still fall at the final hurdle and reduce ethnography to observation…or journalism. Some ethnographic practitioners argue that such exposure should be encouraged because it at least brings attention to the field. Others resent the perception such pieces build of ethnography as an exotic and marginal practice.

But I digress. We invited a Financial Times editor to attend EPIC. In the pitch (necessarily top-line because journalists are busy people!) we offered him an opportunity to interrupt his blanket and largely positive coverage of big data. The idea that organisations are also gathering 'thick data' to understand why people behave in the way big data may show them to be behaving, appealed to his critical sensibilities.

The journalist he delegated came and spoke to EPIC organisers and participants in depth. The resulting full-page article did not deviate a great deal from the pattern described above, but at the very least it was the first time in a long time that FT readers, leaders in a broad range of sectors, were invited to think about the place of ethnography in addressing their particular challenges.

Direct engagement: the approach and the outcome
We complemented the mediated approach above with direct engagement, to spread the word about ethnography in another way. We identified and locked horns with the most extreme protagonist in a broader debate about the relative values of STEM and the humanities/social sciences/liberal arts.

Being heavily involved with STEM-grounded enterprises, ethnographic practitioners are uniquely placed to add their voices to the debate and make the case for the value of non-STEM education and thinking. The very fact that some of the most recognised names in Silicon Valley are relying on the input of humanities trained researchers and social scientists to, for example, make products that people actually want to use, should give pause for thought to some of the more stridently pro-STEM and anti-humanities/liberal arts/social sciences voices. Or in other words: We’re on the same side, stupid!*

We picked on particularly outspoken, but clearly not stupid, UK businessperson Luke Johnson (choice quotation: “to remain competitive, the west needs more students qualified in…[STEM]…and fewer in the liberal arts”). We invited him to challenge his views about the value of the liberal arts at EPIC: We asked him if he wanted to hear first-hand how the specific skills gained through education and training in the humanities and social sciences are applied in a STEM context. In a similar way anthropology-disparaging Florida Governor Rick Scott was presented with evidence that anthropology and anthropologists were an indispensable part of the Florida economy and society. We were not naïve enough to think Luke might recant but thought he might at least reflect and share his experiences with his network.

The result? Luke politely declined. His response is on an earlier blog post, along with my response to him. 

That was the end of the limited PR experiment, which pointed the way to the future for EPIC and some ways consultancies can join the PR fray.

Future directions for EPIC and consultancies using ethnography
Looking ahead EPIC could continue to act as an advocate for the profession on an ongoing basis and gain wider attention for the event itself.

1.  One of the key assets EPIC has at its disposal is the collection of case studies it brings together: Anything that can relate research work to tangible outcomes should be used to help move media coverage on from pith helmets. Individual consultancies find hard to produce enough publicisable case studies to drive their own outreach efforts because of client restrictions and the long term nature of the work. They could instead collaborate with their peers via EPIC, to put the best of what they have on a powerful single platform

2. EPIC could also think about writing an ongoing series of bylined articles for relevant publications. The subjects can be many and varied and take a cue from what is on the event agenda, but should always aim to be topical. One of those issues could be the STEM debate, which manifests in different ways. The bylined articles tactic is more achievable for a consultancy on its own, writing articles tailored to its particular expertise and outlook**

3. Finally, EPIC could do more with direct outreach. Many consultancies are successfully doing this on a smaller scale by hosting salons, often on the theme of reports they have produced. In EPIC’s case it could focus on the theme that lead to the Luke Johnson invite, only inviting more protagonists and convening a special panel to debate it at next year's conference in New York. The output from that panel could be disseminated more widely

*Some in engineering have come to the same conclusion, for example the people over at Big Beacon

**There is some great guidance on writing bylined articles here:

Plus here (in the comments) I expand on questions of writing and media relations:

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