A close encounter with poor science communication

Posted on Sep 24, 2018

Science communication fail

I was recently attending a meeting between a Company and the aboriginal landholders on whose territory the project is located. Relations between the two groups had been acrimonious for a long time so it was no surprise, the company representatives were anxious about discussing a recent diesel fuel spill on the property.

Once everyone was settled in their seats and the opening prayer, round of introductions and welcomes were out of the way–the CEO stood up behind her chair at the table and started to explain how 200 gallons of diesel fuel had spilled after a storage tank had been overfilled.

Sounds like the explanation should have been simple enough. Someone opened a valve to fill the tank with diesel fuel and then forgot to shut it off.  The tank overflowed but most of the diesel had been captured and contained in a rubber-lined pool around the bottom of the tank.  Only about 30 gallons of the diesel fuel had flowed over the top of the collection pool and soaked into the soil near the tank. The company had since removed the diesel-soaked soil and replaced it with clean top soil.

Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe you’re scratching your head about the part where the person forgot about the open valve, but the spill itself was pretty simple. The diesel fuel that spilled had been contained and no damage was done to the environment. I’m also pretty sure the employee will never do that again.

But most importantly, the landholders should have had nothing to fear.

Well, that’s the way this should have gone, but that’s not what happened.

Instead, the meeting turned on a dime and went from respectful to antagonistic to outrage in the course of the first 10 minutes.

Here’s what transpired.


The Company communication person had prepared the CEO with a key message—the diesel spill had been contained to a small area, the site was cleaned up and there was no harm to the water or the wildlife.

The CEO of the company is a well-respected civil engineer but uncomfortable making presentations and averse to conflict, especially from the aboriginal community members who were attending the meeting. So instead of providing a simple explanation of the incident she masked her awkwardness and donned her intellectual engineer persona – the identity with whom she feels most secure.

I’m sure she meant to deliver the prepared corporate message when she stood up behind her chair with her arms crossed in front of her, but instead, she said, “Let me begin by telling you that there is nothing to worry about. The recent hydrocarbon spill was an isolated incident and we have determined there was no long-term damage done to the receiving environment.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

People in the room were looking at each other, furrowing their brows and shrugging their shoulders. Others squirmed in their chairs and shook their heads slowly side-to-side.

The CEO didn’t recognize the cues her audience was giving her, mostly because she wasn’t looking at them, rather she was reading from the piece of paper she had scribbled her notes on and was holding in her trembling hands.

Then she dove head first into the explanation about’ how the spill had happened’.

First off, she explained, “There are three tanks on the site, they are round and large and made of stainless steel so that they won’t corrode.”

So far, so good, but it goes downhill pretty fast from here.

“The tanks in question are used to store hydrocarbons,” she said and that’s when the people in the room began to sit up straight in their chairs.

She went on to explain in minute detail how someone was transferring the hydrocarbons from one tank to another by opening the ball valve, which apparently the company uses because they are a quarter turn value and have “proven safer than other values often used to transport hydrocarbons through the 20.3 centimetres circular pipe that connects the three 49,000 gallon, 13-foot-diameter, and 50-foot-high tanks.”

She went on to explain where the tanks were located, “…almost 470 meters above that small stream that runs through the property, but none of the hydrocarbons were liberated into the stream and most of it was contained in the immediate receiving environment.” Her words, not mine.

“The hydrocarbons” she went on “were impeded from flowing into the stream by a three-meter-high berm that had been built around the tanks to prevent the ‘chemicals’”, again her words, “from being introduced into the greater environment.”

She also threw in for good measure that “the berms had demonstrated to the company that any future hydrocarbon spills could be successfully isolated.”

By this time the tension in the room was palatable.

People’s faces had changed from attentive, to alarmed and frightened.

“Any questions?” the CEO asked confidently feeling like she had successfully started the meeting and dogged a bullet.

That’s when the hands shot up in the air.

People talked over one another and their voices got louder until the room erupted and the man sitting next to me pounded his fist on the table.

“Who did this?” he demanded. “We want to know who is responsible”

The answer from the surprised and somewhat agitated CEO was, “We don’t know. We are still investigating. No one has come forward yet!”

Immediately the questions became more hostile. Why not? How can you not know? How much damage was there? How dangerous is it?

Then someone at the back of the room shouted “We can’t trust you. We don’t want you on our land anymore. We never gave you permission in the first place.”

The defeated CEO who stood with her shoulders slumped and beads of sweat on her brow looked like a deer caught in the headlights. She had no idea what had gone wrong.

Then an Elder put up her hand and in a frail voice asked, “What are hydrocarbons and how dangerous are they to us?”

The CEO looked perplexed and annoyed.

“Hydrocarbons are used to make petroleum products and natural gas,” she said a little condescendingly.

The angry mob sat quietly tapping their fingers waiting for her to finish her answer to explain how dangerous the spill was to their health while the CEO launched into an explanation of the chemical composition of a hydrocarbon in an effort to show they were every day chemicals which are not harmful to human health. “Carbon and hydrogen,” she said

That was my cue to step in and explain that hydrocarbons are what is used to make diesel fuel. And, in this case, we are talking about a diesel spill of an amount that only fills half of a half-ton truck. The rest had been caught in the rubber-lined catchment like a swimming pool around the tank.

There was a collective exhale of breath and I could feel the temperature in the room starting to go down. Mostly because everyone knew what diesel fuel was and how small a 30-gallon spill (the amount that overflowed the catchment) and that it was not going to physically harm them.

“What is the receiving environment,” someone else asked?


Understand your audience

By now you get my point, and it’s not that a civil engineer should never be the one to explain a diesel-fuel-spill, it’s that she should have known her audience and have spoken to be understood, not to appear smart and therefore by virtue of her scientific acumen, trustworthy.

I’ve seen this type of encounter play out time and time again when scientists use words like hydrocarbons instead of diesel fuel, toxicity instead of poisonousness, turbidity instead of cloudiness, remediate instead of solving or fixing. The list of words goes on.  Scientists have their own language and the only other people that understand that language is scientists.

The problem as I see it is that communications people need to do a better job preparing their science-minded CEO or colleagues before they make presentations to non-science audiences.

In this particular case, had the CEO known the average science literacy level for non-science audiences is Grade 5, she might have dropped the engineer’s vernacular and spoken so her audience could understand.

And in the case of this particular audience she might also have known they are visual learners and if she would have used a few pictures or diagrams to accompany her explanation it would have gone a long way to ward off the anger and fear she caused.

Understanding your audience, who they are, how they learn and how they process information and developing presentations to be understood is a key to effective communication, getting results and avoiding conflict.

For more information about learning how to successfully communicate complex science to non-scientists, and more particularly to Indigenous peoples, check out our Science of Communication™ and Speaking the same language™ workshops.


Robert Simpson

At PR Associates, there is no learning curve because health and science communication is all we do. As experts and seamless extensions of your team, we use science storytelling to clarify complexity, capture imaginations, shift mindsets, and stimulate investment interest.

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