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Five Fundamental Social Media Communication Skills

Symposium Article
Newsletter Version: 

What’s more important than sound science? It’s communicating processes and results, especially if you want to ensure further funding. You may have just wrapped-up an epic research project on how climate variability affects lobstermen but it doesn’t mean much unless the data are shared. Or, you may have just concluded a project on saltwater intrusion in the Chesapeake Bay that didn’t turn out as expected but there may have been many lessons learned.

Having a “communications skills” tool box for engaging with the public to convince them why your discipline should be supported is essential these days. Outreach is not a “nice-to-have” anymore; for scientists, outreach is a “must”. After all, who is to blame if the policy makers that listen to the general public aren’t equipped with the right information to make informed decisions?

With the popularity of social media you don’t even have to be a “people person” to start off on the road to science communication. Yes, transparency can be as simple as 140 characters. It’s pretty simple to get started. Below are five fundamental social media tools you may want to consider after you’ve mulled over 1) what type of information you want to share and 2) the tone you want to convey (don’t worry about those too much as they’ll likely evolve over time).   

1) Your Organization: If you don’t want to get too far into social media just quite yet, look into what your organization already utilizes. Make an effort to get to know the staff members behind the Facebook or Twitter account. See if they have an established process for what information they post. Having ideas on posts from staff members is always welcome! The trick will be coming together to make the information manageable for social media platforms. Take the time to learn from their communications skills and when you’re ready for your own accounts you’ll be all the more successful for taking the time to see how it’s done.

2) Twitter: If your organization already has a Twitter account there should be nothing stopping you from having one of your own to share what you do at work. It’s always a good idea to let your followers know where you work by mentioning your organization’s handle. Be sure to add a disclaimer (e.g., Tweets are my own) and look into any social media policy your organization may have as well.

The beauty of Twitter is that it really is a fantastic jumping off point for the social media neophyte. Going through the search tool you can find people that you may want to connect to and follow them. Once you’ve established a following list, take the time to develop your voice and respond and interact with their tweets. Participate in Tweet Chats related to your field. With an increase in meaningful interactions, you’ll see an increase in followers of your own.

Once you’re comfortable on the platform, use it selfishly and put your own work out there if it’s available as a link. With most social media platforms, it’s going to benefit you more if you don’t just post all about what you or your organization is doing. The rule of thumb seems to be to post 30% of the time about you, the other 70% should be sharing information from other like-minded organizations or people. You share what they post today and more often than not, they’ll share your post tomorrow. 

3) Facebook: If you have a very specialized concentration and want to brand yourself as the expert on a specific topic (e.g., marine debris, limpets, coral), creating a Facebook page would be a good starting point. To create the page you will have to have a personal account already. But, keeping them separate is a good idea. You don’t want everyone that is interested in you for your knowledge on sea slugs to also be privy to your epic backpacking adventure or what your kids dressed as for Halloween. For an effective Facebook page you’ll want to make sure you have some compelling images. By accompanying the images with plain language text and requesting some sort of feedback (i.e., ask questions and opinions) you’ll get more interactions. With more likes, shares, and comments your Facebook affinity will increase and soon enough you’ll be on the Today Show the next time they call for a limpet expert. 

4) YouTube/Vimeo: If you’re doing some fascinating work underwater or in the field, wear a GoPro and share it with the world. The public appreciates a (short) video. Even if the sound quality isn’t quite up to par you can talk with people in your organization that might have the skill set (remember #1) or invest in a video editing software that will enable text. You can also use YouTube analytics to track when the public might not be as engaged in the video anymore. Also, make sure to add a link at the end of the video, or at the least on the video’s page, where the public can learn more about the project. I am pretty sure that I could have made an entire 20 minute bloopers reel with my fieldwork over a decade ago. Having these types of video snippets ready to share are quite valuable if you’re planning on heading to schools or community organizations to talk about your research.

5) Blog: A blog dedicated to your research science is an ideal place to start creating a voice for yourself (or your department, presumably all doing similar work). The platform is a place to create a story and create a conversation. Remember that the blog is not a journal article and each post does not have to have all the elements of a published paper: abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. Each of those elements can be dissected and shared in a more personable and accessible manner. Remember to keep the “social” in “social media”. The difficulty with a blog can sometimes be keeping it fresh and updating at set intervals. If you’re stuck for some inspiration here is a list of “10 techniques for science bloggers to discover inspiration”.

As a note of caution, don’t jump into all of these ideas all at once. Think about which tools are best suited for what you want to communicate. Perfect those and then build on them. Before you know it, you’ll be participating in live online discussions (e.g., Google + Hangouts) and using image-based platforms (e.g., Pinterest, Instagram). Soon enough you’ll need an About Me page to curate all of the social media platforms you’ve set up for yourself. No matter what platform you do start using, be sure to show enthusiasm for your specialty and respect others getting their message out as well. A committed following will materialize.

If you or your organization are hesitant to start on the path of science communication, many programs have recently popped up specialized in training scientists on how to contend with the needs and expectations of society.

1) Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science(Stony Brook University):

2) American Association for the Advancement of Science:

3) Compass (Dedicated to helping scientists connect themselves and their science to the wider world. By giving scientists the communication tools they need, and by bridging the worlds of science, journalism and policy, COMPASS works to ensure that science is better understood and used by society.):

For more information check out the Pocasts:  Incorporating Social Media Tools in the Context of Communications Planning & 10 Creative Ways to Collect and Translate Science Information. 

Ann McElhatton is the Program Manager with the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program(ACCSP). In January 2013, ACCSP and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commissionsponsored a Social Media for Fisheries Communication Workshop. You can find the final report from that workshop (including lists of social media and communications tools, over 50 fisheries and ocean-related blogs, and key social media terms) here. Ann McElhatton also writes at the blog Beach Chair Scientist.