Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Director's perspective: Exploring social media for university research

(Editor's note:  In a new series with perspectives from communications directors in different types of organizations, I asked Jim Barlow, who directs science and research communications at the University of Oregon, to share his process for exploring how social media fits into the university's existing array of communications tools.  Jim did some of his exploring using social media tools to ask questions and network with colleagues--a good example of how you should be carrying out your own quest.  Share your ideas and reactions in the comments.)

Some 10,000 years ago, technologically speaking, in the mid 1990s, I was in a small group of outlandish thinkers who boldly predicted -- to "yeah, right" cynical reactions -- that with the Web we soon would NOT need The Media to tell our university research stories. We could bypass reporters. This was long before the economy melted and print publications shriveled and ousted science writers.

We have used our websites to display our work, letting people find our news by way of search engines. Our "unreported" news releases no longer were dead in reporters' trash cans; they were alive and well on the Web.

Like everyone else, from PR gurus at private companies to general institutional public information officers to my fellow science communicators, we are scrambling to evolve further, to carve newer niches to reach our constituents. A big challenge for me is the heavy basic-research nature of the University of Oregon. Reporters today rarely cover basic science, and my colleagues elsewhere whose news releases involve applied research aren't seeing levels of media coverage they used to. A lot of us are diving into social media. Makes sense. It's new (sort of) and hot (at the moment) and working (but privacy issues threaten to drive off some users).

So in an effort to look forward-thinking, I asked others what they are doing, so I can shamelessly steal their ideas and add my own spices to, hopefully, make it look like I know what I'm doing. I posted a question about social media use on LinkedIn, on the PIOnet subgroup of PRwise. This generated great response and ideas and URLs.

I asked my non-scientific-minded friends on my personal Facebook page how and where they get their science news. Interestingly, virtually none agreed that science and medical coverage has declined. They point "news" available online. So maybe they aren't so driven by the idea that reporters add perspective and present challenging questions about newly promoted findings. They seem to be OK with what they find.

To no surprise, I have chosen to use Facebook to promote science and research news at my university. My big issue is content. Do I do as some do and simply post headlines and teasers that drive Facebook viewers to our communications website? I want to be more innovative. I'm looking to make the best of my opportunity. But I worry that Facebook will, tomorrow, give way to a new and better tool, or that I am adopting the wrong tool.

I'm a one-man science communications shop. My staff is me, myself and I. We rarely get along. I have proposed to approach my job with new vigor and, essentially, remake the way I do science news. On our Facebook page, I propose to present:

Teaser headlines and descriptions of news releases linked to our regular website

Very brief notes about federal grants

Shorter news releases on findings that are unlikely to get media pickup

Videos with short descriptions featuring faculty talking about what drives them

Videos with short stories featuring researchers and their students in the field

Brief coverage of talks (evening lectures by guests, or even some occasional department-specific lectures)

Short "news briefs" on new projects, new equipment, summer research programs, research outreach

• Updates on science-related construction work on campus

Links to media coverage involving our science/research faculty

• Photos/videos of undergraduate students working in research labs

• Links to other research/science news appearing in newsletters or websites of other departments and units across campus
Media may find fodder for stories. Maybe not. So who's my audience? That's where the evolution of our business has really changed. We now serve everybody. The overall principle would be to use Facebook as a one-stop gateway that:
• Provides reports of the latest UO research

• Provides potential story ideas

Promotes the basic and applied research we do by putting individual faculty faces and videos in easy-to-understand ways

• Serves to quietly recruit potential new undergraduate students

• Serves to quietly recruit potential new graduate students

• Provides nuggets of research news worthy of use by development officers

• Provides up-to-date research activity that could be bullet points for administrators making public comments somewhere

• Provides a quick overview to the general public and all other university stakeholders to go to catch up on campus science

• Provide content (as links, fodder for longer stories, newsletter nuggets) easily adaptable for use by other units/department on campus
• Provide a seemingly alive resource for anyone who ventures in
What I really hope happens is that people finding and coming to our Facebook page will follow links to other sites and respond with feedback and suggestions. The UO participates in Futurity, the comprehensive science-related news site that features stories from members of the Association of American Universities and select United Kingdom institutions. A couple of my releases posted there have generated feedback, some negative. A couple of criticisms were well stated; I not only responded but I’ve also kept those comments in mind when writing future releases.

Feedback is good. There is a public mistrust of science. While we continue to shovel out our news, we should be listening to our audiences and use what they say to fine-tune our messaging. We can't please everyone. But I believe we can make more people a little happier.

Am I crazy? Have I overlooked something? We all have a lot to learn. And do.

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