Advocacy Update

APA's efforts to advocate for substance abuse patients and research

2015 Psychology in the Public Interest Leadership Conference.

By Mikhail Koffarnus, PhD

I recently had the pleasure of representing Div. 28 at the first Psychology in the Public Interest Leadership conference at the APA headquarters in Washington, D.C. The goal of this conference organized by the APA Public Interest Directorate was to empower psychologists to effectively communicate the importance of psychological science to policy makers and the media, and to contribute to public discussion of topics on which psychologists have a particular set of skills that can prove useful. Over two and half days, we heard from a wonderful set of speakers with insight into advocacy efforts. The first of these was Brian Smedley, PhD, of the National Collaborative for Health Equity who convincingly documented the current inequities in our society and the need to confront them directly.

The next day started with a session by Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, of Carnegie Mellon University and Sheril Kirshenbaum, MS, MP, of The University of Texas at Austin on the fundamentals of translation and dissemination. These speakers encouraged us to prioritize writing and communicating with a broad audience instead of restricting communication to other scientists. After a breakout brainstorming session, we continued with a session on examples of translation of psychological science with Patricia Devine, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin and Carl Hart, PhD, of Columbia University. These speakers recounted how they achieved broad reach in the popular media with their messages about racial bias and social justice aspects of neuropsychopharmacology, respectively. In the final session of the day, Lynn Davey, PhD, of Davey Strategies discussed messaging strategies that are most effective for convincing an audience of a viewpoint or disseminating information broadly. She emphasized the importance of pitching information and arguments in a way that makes clear how the message impacts the readers personally through interaction with values that define them.

For the third day, we split into three groups that were focused on dissemination for public messages, legislative audiences or executive branch audiences. I chose the executive branch track, where we learned how to pitch messages and make contact with individuals in the various executive branch offices and had a question and answer session with representatives from various government agencies. I walked away from this session viewing executive branch agency employees as far more approachable than I had at the outset. Representatives from multiple agencies stressed that somebody reads and responds to all messages, including emails, sent to them or at least forwards them to the appropriate office or person. If you're unsure who is the most appropriate person to send a message to, it was suggested that you simply send the message to the director of the agency, since the director (or more likely an assistant) reads all emails and forwards them to the best person to handle the request. The director's office likely knows better than you to whom a message should be directed, so this approach can be more efficient. Regarding how verbose to be when disseminating information to an executive branch office, the representatives suggested to either be very brief (i.e., three bullet points) and reply with more information if requested, or better yet, to send the same information with different levels of detail all at once. For example, a position statement on a topic of interest could be sent as a three-bullet take-home points that a director may read, a one paragraph to one page abstract that an employee dealing with the topic of interest may read and a full-length detailed report that could be consulted if the first two formats spark interest.

Since the vast majority of our research is funded by taxpayers, we have a responsibility to disseminate our research findings widely. When doing so, remember that APA's Public Interest Directorate is there to help.