Alicia C. Aebersold
APA Chief Communications Officer
At its heart, successful communication is ensuring that great ideas and inspiring messages reach the right people, in the right way, at the right time and spur people into action.
Determining that strategy is first and foremost for our communications team at the American Psychological Association. As soon as we identify a psychology-related story to tell, we ask three essential questions: WHY does this content matter? WHO needs to see it? WHAT action or change do we hope it sparks? Then we decide WHERE the content goes—on our website, in our newsletters, in a press release, on social media, in our magazine—and in some cases all of the above.
That strategy is, of course, a tried-and-true way of broadcasting messages. But these days at APA, we have been very successful in telling psychology’s stories in new ways. They call for us to be fast and forceful, to create our own news, and to play offense, not just defense.
Be Fast and Forceful
By weighing in swiftly on critical advocacy issues, APA is amplifying the ways psychology can have a positive impact on major social issues.
For example, last year when the Trump administration issued its policy to separate families at the border as an immigration deterrence strategy, APA quickly issued a forceful statement from the APA president detailing the psychological research on the harm children experience when they are separated from their parents. Just three hours later, the statement was cited in The New York Times. Within days, nearly all of APA’s statement appeared in a passionate opinion piece calling for the end of the practice of family separation. Shortly after, a New York Times editorial cited APA among three powerful organizations speaking out.
APA continued to push out psychology’s research on the harm to families and children through traditional and social media, as well as at a press conference on Capitol Hill where APA CEO Arthur C. Evans, Jr, PhD, spoke to members of Congress and representatives of allied health organizations. That resulted in further media coverage, including a piece on CNN that was picked up by many other news outlets.
The media saw APA as a leading voice with a powerful message of keeping families together, bolstered by the psychological research. What we circulated mattered, and no one could dispute the science. We acted fast, presented our story to the right journalists, and made our case broadly through the media.
Another way we elevate psychology and psychological science is by proactively hosting discussions of issues in which psychology and psychologists can have real impact. That’s the idea behind our National Conversations, a series of high-profile events focused on major societal issues.
So far, we’ve hosted conversations on two topics: civility and deep poverty. In October, award-winning journalist and NPR host Scott Simon moderated the National Conversation on Civility, which coincidentally was scheduled during Brett Kavanaugh’s heated Supreme Court nomination hearings and just before the midterm elections. In January, our National Conversation on Deep Poverty, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., explored how psychology can alleviate the challenges facing people who live below the poverty line.
Both events brought psychology to new audiences around new issues.
Punching back is often a smart strategy when faced with negative coverage or misinformation. But APA does more than that—we see negative coverage as a way to garner supportive attention. That was the case with the APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, which inadvertently launched a firestorm on social media that spread to other media. The guidelines had been approved by APA’s Council of Representatives in August 2018 and were the topic of a continuing-education article in the January 2019 APA Monitor on Psychology. An APA tweet about the article led some people to see the guidelines were an attack on masculinity. That led to negative stories in conservative outlets, including on Fox News, Breitbart and The National Review.
In response, our strategy was to focus on the opportunity to tell the real story, not the one being inaccurately portrayed by some media. The APA team encouraged the mainstream media to report on the actual purpose and goal of the guidelines, which was to improve care for men and boys and raise awareness of the societal issues that can undermine their mental health.
The results were phenomenal, garnering a wide swath of positive coverage for the guidelines in outlets that probably would never have covered the guidelines including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Think Progress, USA Today, Jezebel, US News and World Report and NBCNews.com.
As APA continues to evolve as an organization, with a new strategic plan to guide the way, APA’s communications team is evolving its strategies to be more proactive, more story centric, and more present in the national news. We will continue to rely on the depth of science and knowledge available to us, the expertise of our members and leaders, and the important messages psychology brings to the table, and work diligently to communicate the importance of psychology and psychologists in a way that people will listen and respond.