Unfortunately, the grass is not always greener on the other side – at least not (in this case) on the other side of the English Channel.
Attending the Science Communication Conference 2011 in London end of May proved to me that science communicators in Great Britain and Europe seem to struggle with similar problems as we do in Germany. Especially the panel discussion »The Tyranny of the Web« with Pippa Hyam, Jonathan Sanderson and Ed Yong manifested many of the challenges communication professionals have been discussing for years and which still dominate networking events and conferences like the one in London.
Individuals are better than organizations in applying social media
Being one of the first science institutions in Germany with a corporate blog, we know about the difficulties of trying to build a dialogue between an organization and the public. Therefore, from the start our main goal was to focus on our experts and to bring them together with an interested audience. As we have many different authors writing for the IAO-Blog, we realized that most readers rather contact our scientists directly than leaving a comment on the blog itself. We learned to accept this and not to regard the number of comments on the blog as the only criterion for a successful blog post. Our corporate blog is an enabler and catalyst for dialogue and involvement but not the only platform for it. Against this backdrop it was particularly interesting to hear how other communication professionals and scientists deal with this balancing act and learn from their experiences.
Tension between the professional and the personal
Much the same applies to social media activities on channels and networks such as twitter and facebook. Individuals are more authentic and successful when it comes to communicating via such channels. However, beyond the borders of an obvious corporate website or corporate blog things become more blurry: How much of my profile shows the private individual and to what extend do I have to take into account that I also represent my company in professional discussions etc.? I really don’t like and trust facebook and still have to get a profile as I have to monitor the social media activities of my organization – what options do I have? These questions occupied scientists and science communicators equally during the panel discussion. Yes, social media might be a cocktail party and the applying rules and etiquette might not be so different from what we already know, but how many of us are ready and willing to turn their lives into a 24/7 cocktail party?
Many problems of the internet are problems of the media in general
However, apart from these quite constructive discussions on the challenges of social media there is still quite a lot of unproductive scepticism and ignorance which still take up astonishingly much room in professional debates. I am always surprised to hear how long-known difficulties of strategic communication, like the lack of reliable tools for success control or the limits of control over a piece of information once it is published, all the sudden become the main reasons why social media is under fire from all sides. Most social media experts hardly ever point out in their defense that these problems are not inherent in social media in particular but in strategic communication (including mass media relations) in general. This doesn’t mean we should stop discussing ways to overcome these problems but it should definitely not serve as a bad excuse for abandoning social media altogether.