Public Engagement at Bath

Supporting researchers to engage the public with their research

Learning how to communicate at Communicate 2017

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Russell Arnott is a postgraduate researcher in the Research Unit for Water, Environment & Infrastructure Resilience (WEIR). He received a bursary to attend Communicate 2017, the UK's conference for environmental communicators. Below, he shares his reflections on the conference and of some of the workshops that he attended.

I first became aware of Bristol Natural History Consortium through Viewpoints; a series of talks and networking events aimed at bringing together anyone with an interest in the River Avon. The Viewpoints sessions ran in the build up to the Festival of Nature and as the newly appointed Outreach Officer for WEIR, I felt it was important that we had a presence. After all, as the Water Environment and Infrastructure Resilience unit, it would be a shame if a research unit with such an appropriate acronym weren’t involved.

While WEIR was unavailable to take part in the Bath component of the Festival of Nature this year, I was still keen to get to know other environmental outreach practitioners in the area with a view to collaborate with / learn from them in order to better the outreach provision provided by WEIR.

I felt very lucky to be awarded a grant to attend BNHC’s Communicate conference which brought together people from a broad range of sectors to discuss how best to disseminate environmental information to different demographic groups. While most academic conferences have a tendency to be very niche, Communicate opened me up to different ways of thinking about issues I had never really even contemplated.

Hosted in Bristol Zoo’s ornate Clifton Pavilion, Communicate opened with a thoughtful report by Tim Silman from Ipsos Mori discussing the environmental views of the UK population; worryingly, only 60% people now claim to be concerned with climate change compared to 82% in 2005.

Often spoilt for choice, a number of overlapping sessions then took place throughout the day; I opted for “Outrage, Optimism and Curiosity” which focussed upon various campaigns to engage people by comparing language use and approach. Having worked in environmental campaigning in the past, it was interesting to find that the simple phraseology of slogan can have a profound effect on campaign engagement. Furthermore, environmentalists are too quick to point the finger of blame which acts as a barrier to positive behavioural change. Similarly, the environmental movement can be detrimentally pessimistic often resulting in inactivity as people think “what can I do…?”. As such, Richard Young, Head of Conservation Science at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, suggested adopting an approach of conservation optimism where success stories are publicised; an approach particularly important when engaging with informed audiences.

After an informative Toolbox talk on using social media effectively (particularly useful for a technophobe like me!), we were treated to a showcase of nature-themed murals around the world presented by Tim Godwin of Human Nature and artist, ATM. While it can be difficult to get those living in urban environments to appreciate the natural world, Human Nature brings nature to the urban environment by collaborating with artists, councils and communities to produce giant paintings of carefully chosen native species.

The networking evening was a fun affair, particularly when Simon Garrett treated the last remaining hangers-on to an impromptu night time tour of the zoo. This included a visit to the zoo’s infamous “Cupboard of Death”; a repository of animal artefacts ceased from customs at Bristol airport over the years.

Day 2 began with an informative and insightful talk from Naomi Sesay, Head of Youth Engagement at The Media Trust. The talk discussed the attitudes of Millennials and Generation Z with a focus on how these demographics engage with different aspects of social media. Equal parts fascinating and terrifying!

After a couple of workshops focussing on tools to change behaviours and an obligatory wander around the zoo, the second day wrapped up with another small networking (drinking) session allowing us all to discuss what we had gained over the course of the conference.

It’s not often that a situation arises where so many people from such a range of backgrounds would be in the same room at the same time but Communicate provided that opportunity and did it well. Environmental campaigners, conservationists, academic researchers, media gurus, TV producers… all sharing best practice to affect meaningful change in the hope of making our planet a better place. Very much looking forward to next year.

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