Innovative research partnerships is a series of profiles about collaborations between Ph.D. communication researchers and working professionals in the community. I consider these partnerships innovative because of the creativity involved in initiating and sustaining cross-sector collaborative research. Through separate interviews of both partners in the collaboration, I share the unique stories behind the partnerships, the challenges they face in their collaborative efforts, and the fruits of these partnerships. The series was started in anticipation of my two conferences sessions on research partnerships at ComNet17 in September and NCA in 2017.
Today, we hear from Jeannette Sutton and Dave Cokely. Their work together addresses the improvement of communication about imminent threats, as well as quality training on this topic. Let’s start with what Dave has to say about this partnership.
Dave Cokely is an instructor at National Weather Service (NWS) Training Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
On what he has gained from the partnership: After being advised by Jeannette and several other social scientists on improving NWS risk communication messages, Jeannette led a training session for a group of NWS meteorologists who coordinate warning messages. Dave said that Jeannette designed a “brilliant” exercise, asking trainees to get their hands dirty developing messaging in various disaster scenarios. According to Dave, Jeannette’s training session received the highest rating of all sessions over the 4-day class, adding that she had “hit a grand slam.”
On his role in the partnership: Dave said he and his colleagues are frequently asking themselves how to better communicate watches, warnings, and advisories to the public to prompt action. Dave describes his role in the partnership as “start(ing) a two-way conversation” with an expert who had “absolutely critical information” to share with him and his colleagues at NWS.
On challenges the partnership faced: Dave reflected that “it takes work to get the door cracked open for these collaborations,” adding that he sees these type of partnerships happening more often. Dave said that sometimes it is hard to get meteorologists and scientists in his industry to pay attention to social sciences research because it is seen as a “soft science.”
On why the partnership works: Jeannette has a “great presence,” according to Dave, and when she presents social scientific evidence that is relevant to his colleagues, they listen. He said that she has helped him and his colleagues integrate insights from social science into an audience-centered approach to messaging, including a new training series about supporting the public’s decision-making process when preparing for disasters.
Dr. Jeannette Sutton is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and director of the Risk and Disaster Communication Center in the College of Communication at University of Kentucky.
On how the partnership got started: Dave contacted Jeannette after he heard her speak at a NWS-hosted hazard simplification conference in 2015, eventually asking her to lead a training on risk communication for NWS. Jeannette was asked to conduct this training again this fall by another contact. Jeannette said she works to build relationships with partners such as Dave so that they can collaborate in the future if an opportunity presents itself.
On why this research matters: Jeannette said she “has the privilege of working with people who are putting out life-saving messages” about disasters. Although Dave wasn’t involved in writing it up, Jeannette is publishing the training exercise she developed in a forthcoming journal article. She added that working with professionals like Dave ensures her research is responsive to the needs of people in the risk communication field.
On challenges the partnership faced: Jeannette said that it takes time and effort, on top of a busy teaching schedule and research agenda, to develop and maintain relationships with practitioners in the field of disaster communication. However, she frequently travels to present at and attend conferences such as the American Meteorological Society and Society for Risk Analysis to share her research and maintain relationships.
On why this partnership works: Jeannette said that she has seen the NWS grow increasingly interested in incorporating social science into their operations. Dave and his colleagues at NWS are interested in some of the same questions she is asking about how people perceive messages and the factors that influence how people interpret them.