This week I was reminded by Melissa Sweet that the Banff Science Communications 2011 program was in progress. I had noticed it a few weeks ago, but had forgotten about it. Using the hashtag #banffscience, Melissa has almost single-handedly collated and curated information from talks, classes, and blog posts about this program for two weeks. The only reason I discovered she was doing so was because I follow enough scientists and science journalists on Twitter to see retweets and start following her and the hashtag, occasionally contributing an article or two I’d discovered (testimony that Canadian scientists are being muzzled by the Privy Council Office in Ottawa was something I thought these science communications people might want to discuss, for instance, so I contributed breaking news on the silencing of Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Dr. Kristi Miller – here’s a roundup of that coverage). When you’re attending a program as intensive as this one, you’re not always able to follow the news.
Oddly, a Twitter account for the program was created – and as of today, has tweeted exactly once, on August 18. The general Banff Centre Twitter account has provided some information, but has failed to recognize the #banffscience hashtag.
I don’t want to be all judge-y and prescriptive here. But people have been live tweeting conferences and events for years now, and this is the second major failure to take advantage of an opportunity for some almost-free public relations I’ve seen this week.
The Banff Centre programs aren’t cheap (in excess of C$5k) and there aren’t a lot of scholarships available for them. Everyone I know who’s attended any kind of course or workshop put on by the Banff Centre has raved about the experience, and the instructors in this program are top notch. The programs have grown, morphed, and expanded over the course of the last twenty years, getting bigger and better and more varied. In this particular program, the enthusiasm of both the participants and the instructors is palpable (see this tweet from John Rennie, one of the instructors, and this post from one of the scholarship winner attendees).
So far I haven’t seen any mainstream media coverage of this particular program. Instead, there was a Globe and Mail article this week about the Banff Centre, in which the claim that it makes Alberta Canada’s new arts hub is made. There’s no mention of the Science Communications program at all.
So here are some suggestions (and a prescription or two):
- If you’re marketing something (and the Banff Centre most definitely is marketing its programs, courses and workshops), make a commitment to do so and follow through on it.
- If you’ve established a social media presence, don’t neglect it. Use the power of crowd sourcing in particular and social media in general to tap into prospective volunteers. Inviting bloggers and live tweeters to attend and participate and comping them in to events is probably the cheapest marketing and public relations in which you’ll ever invest.
- Seize the day by getting out in front of the hashtag. #banffscience is a great hashtag. It’s a shame the Banff Centre doesn’t seem to have to twigged to the fact that it’s being used. But if a co-ordinated social media strategy was in place, the Centre itself would have created – and used – the hashtag.
Good corporate public relations drives employee retention and attraction. It also drives program participation. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the Science Communications participants returned to the Banff Centre to take the adventure photography course? Or if some of the folks from the creative non-fiction course took the science communications course? Unique programming only goes so far. Right now, according to the Banff Centre’s stats, 75% of program participants are Canadian. But given the strength of the Canadian dollar and the meltdown in the US economy, plus the fact that many of the program’s instructors are Americans, wouldn’t it be nice to ensure there isn’t a 25% drop off in attendance?
I don’t mean to single out the Banff Centre or its Science Communications course. An international literary festival this week also demonstrated that it doesn’t quite get the value or scope of social media either – despite a Twitter feed and two mainstream journalists in attendance, with only three events running simultaneously they were unable to provide coverage of all three events on Twitter. That’s a shame, as well as a huge opportunity missed. It’s really not all that different from the case study/customer success story tactic, in which the client pays to have a case study developed and the client’s customer reaps the benefits of participating in the case study by getting public relations it hasn’t paid for.
Live tweeting and live blogging events may not drive attendance for your current programming. But it has the potential to drive future attendance in 2012, 2013, 2014, and beyond, at a time when your local, homegrown audience may well be vanishing. Don’t discount the ‘been there, done that’ factor or the fact that the ‘staycation’ may not be here to stay. You may well find volunteers among your existing staff who are willing to live blog or live tweet events. You’re paying them anyway. Their enthusiasm for promoting, organizing, and administering the events you put on will only increase if you allow them to participate by turning them into brand ambassadors and allowing them to showcase some of the skills you may not currently be paying them to use. It could be the cheapest professional development you ever offer them. And if you cast your net more widely for volunteer live tweeters, you’ll be amazed at the coverage you get and the goodwill you create. People will be banging down your doors for the opportunity to participate, not just spectate. Increasingly bloggers are transitioning to paid online and mainstream news organizations. You could be making a media friend for life. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?