By Timothy Alex Akimoff, Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife
Twitter has been with us for 11 years. In that time, it has gone from a ubiquitous micro-blogging platform to a political quagmire.
Among the clutter, science has found a communications platform that, while far from perfect, is perfectly suited to conversations about communicating science better.
And if you wade into those heavily academic waters, you’ll find resource agencies and field biologists using social media tools like Twitter and Instagram to bring science to the people. To take the public along for a revelatory ride down in the dirt or the water, among the building blocks of research.
When it comes to communicating science at natural resource agencies, it’s typical for the communication folks to reach out to the people in the field to get information and images or video to create a web-friendly package for distribution to media channels. Most of the rich science as background gets filtered out in favor of efficiency and the various limits of television, radio and newspaper.
When the communication happens at the level where science can steal the show and biologists can provide their own context, you can bring the science directly to the public and bring the public right to where it matters using social media tools like Twitter and Instagram.
Find the folks…
Field work means long, tough days with little time to deal with anything but the tools specific to the job. Getting field biologists to take photographs for social media, let alone publishing those photos to Twitter, while they’re surveying fish or counting elk is asking an awful lot.
So how do you increase participation in social media from your field staff?
- Find the folks already comfortable with it. We often refer to them as digital natives. These folks tend to be the newly hired techs or biologists just getting familiar with the work at a natural resources agency. But they also already know how to integrate social media into their work.
- Find the folks who are already good at using social media tools like Twitter or Instagram, and give them a bit of freedom to tell their own story using those tools.
- Find the folks who are excited to learn these platforms, train them and turn them loose with these new-to-them communication tools. Show them the data – biologists/scientists inherently love data. Seeing some backend data on posts they participate in helps spark further interest and enthusiasm.
- Show them other scientists on social media – sometimes, having these ‘science role models’ helps those unfamiliar with social media see how social media can be used as a science communication tool.
- Never, ever force social media on people who are unwilling to try it.
There are many options for providing social media training to field biologists in a natural resource agency, but it’s not likely something that can be done for everyone at exactly the same time. Here at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, we have provided trainings during large, yearly meetings for our wildlife and fish sides. We’ve gone out on administrative road trips to provide presentations. But the most effective method we’ve found so far is to spend time with individual field biologists.
Beyond the technical uses of platforms like Twitter and Instagram, one of the biggest areas we find ourselves talking about is the huge gap between what a field biologist finds interesting and what the public finds interesting. Field biologists see the same thing every day and don’t often see opportunities to translate their tasks to the public in a visual and compelling way. In science, there is often a sense that a story isn’t worth telling until the story is completely finished (for example, a multi-year study is completed, written and published.
One of the ways we combat this is that when we receive a photo or video from a field biologist, we’ll often send them a link to wherever we posted it so they can see how the public responded. Once a biologist sees the public react to something they do every day, there is often a greater willingness to share that work with others.
And while some research cannot be effectively communicated until the project is further along, some of the most effective communication can take place on social media designed to bring people in, provide context to them and allow them to ask questions at the very beginning or when a project is in its earliest stages.
Building a social media team
Getting more field biologists in your agency to use social media to connect their work with the public or to share more with the main agency social media profiles is only part of the challenge of building social media communication resources at natural resource agencies.
Once you have a group of people using social media within the agency, you have a much bigger profile, where the public can look in on the agency from many different angles, which means it’s imperative to keep a sharp eye out for inconsistencies and controversial issues.
One fantastic way to connect your social-media-savvy biologists to the overall agency strategy is to connect them to each other and to their colleague counterparts at other agencies. This can provide useful modeling for how to use Twitter and Instagram effectively.
Many natural resource agencies have one social media coordinator or perhaps several, who round up the content to post on the various platforms. The value of having a broad team of social media specialists throughout the various divisions within an agency is very high.
Connecting the public to research, physical conservation work and the intricacies of fish and wildlife management lets them experience it in a way that press releases can’t quite capture. It gives them a true daily window into the agency and a deeper appreciation for where their license fees go.