Saturday, April 18, 2009

DCSWA: social media suggestions

At the DC Science Writers Association professional development day today, I'm joining Nancy Shute of and US News & World Report, and web consultant Craig Stoltz, former Washington Post health section editor on the panel "Blogging, Twittering, Facebook, and other social media: What Good Are They?" Our goal was to answer the question, "Can social media really help science writers do their jobs--as journalists, PIOs, staff or freelance?"

There's a world of potential here for communicators and journalists. For DCSWA, my focus is on a mix of science and non-science examples, to help the crowd see different models and help them think beyond the box. Here are links to what I think science writers and communicators should be mulling in social media:
  1. Specialized social networks: Yes, you should be on Facebook and LinkedIn--Facebook pages, now numbering more than 100,000, are the new corporate information basic, whether you're a freelance writer of science books like Carl Zimmer, or DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. But you also should explore specialized social networks, like Army of Women, which aims to recruit healthy women for clinical trials on breast cancer prevention and helps researchers build suitable cohorts for their trials; Disaboom, for people with disabilities; communities for scientists, like LabSpaces, designed to foster collaboration; or GottaMentor, which goes beyond linking to your professional contacts to helping them mentor one another.
  2. Video and photo sharing: Visuals are still dominant in their appeal on social media--and a great way to engage with your audience and share your stash of photos and film. The Library of Congress has done a successful experiment with a Flickr photostream from its vast collections, and shared data on metrics; EPA is currently hosting an Earth Day video contest to engage citizens in promising to protect the environment. Beyond science, Will It Blend?, a commercial site, features its engineer CEO grinding up objects in its high-end blender--an approach that captures the joy of blowing things up with your chemistry set that also is blowing up viewing records of the videos and boosting sales 700 percent. With examples like Blendtec, it's important to remember that consumers are 30 percent more likely to make a purchase if they've watched a short video online at lunchtime. The YouTube Symphony Orchestra is a grand-scale example of using a video contest that could be used in all sorts of ways--think of doing a version for the popular science talent contests, for young science Ph.Ds looking for faculty jobs, for crowdsourcing the next big questions to pursue on any number of scientific disciplines. Same goes for Richard Branson's blog, currently asking entrepreneurs to submit videos of their big ideas; the best will be shown in-flight on Virgin planes, which carry lots of business executives who might be able to advance those new ideas. Why not big scientific research ideas?
  3. Blogs and Twitter: Possibly the most facile and flexible tools in the social media arsenal, blogs and Twitter have myriad applications for science writers. Honestly, my favorite science-related poster is an amateur, attorney Bill Romanos--he consistently delivers valuable links and reading across a range of disciplines. Real-time data updates for data-rich monitoring projects would do well to follow the "smog blog" at UMBC, where you can see updates on air quality throughout the U.S.--not just numbers, but visualizations of moving smog; Cooking for Engineers, the foodie blog of a Silicon Valley computer engineer that's built an impressive following with a focus on molecular gastronomy and good recipes; Colonial Williamsburg's cannon blog, a log that follows efforts to recreate a Revolutionary War cannon, showing mistakes, failed attempts and progress over the course of a multi-year experimental effort; and two federal agencies on Twitter, FDA recalls (think pistachios), a good example of relaying emergency information, and NASA, a catchall Twitter feed that's in addition to more than 20 mission-specific feeds NASA publishes. (I'd love to see these federal Twitter pages get more interactive--they're mostly focused on pushing out information than taking it in.)
  4. Profiles: Important for the individual science communicator, journalist or freelancer, your online profiles on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google are key to establishing and maintaining your brand. See this previous post of mine on using profiles to network, useful whether you are a reporter, author or communicator. Science writers who work for scientific institutions should consider making sure all their researcher experts have fully developed profiles, too. My best tip: Google profiles, while less well known, offer you the chance to post comments on Google search results.
I work with a wide variety of science-focused organizations to develop communications strategies, train their communicators and develop content, often with social-media applications. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz if I can help your scientific group move into social media for its communications.

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