I had foolishly volunteered my services to help them out during the trip earlier in the year, imagining that it would be a relatively trivial commitment requiring a couple of media releases and a few interviews. Instead, it turned into one of the biggest media stories I have ever been a part of and which, until the University of New South Wales took over on January 5, I had to look after entirely by myself.
In the space of just 10 days I had up to 1000 media requests from around the world.
It has been a fascinating experience, which has given me a number of insights and confirmed some of those beliefs I already held. I will be talking about some of these over the next few weeks.
Perhaps the most important of these insights is the value of social media and supplying the right content - in particular video content.
When this expedition was first put together, a key component was always science communication. To this end the expedition leaders brought along a variety of video cameras, organised regular Google plus hangouts, extended an existing YouTube channel, Intrepid Science, to upload regular videos, used Vine, created a Facebook page, website and built a strategy around social media.
Whatever you may think of the wisdom of the trip in light of what happened, this social media strategy allowed the expedition to control the way the story was reported right up to the point of the rescue. Over the course of the 10 days that the expedition was trapped in the ice, they were able to regularly upload videos about their situation. This allowed them to let family members know they were safe, despite some early reporting suggesting otherwise, and it also generated regular updates and footage that was used by networks everywhere.
It is worth noting that one of the rescue ships contained a journalist and photographer from a major Australian publisher and yet they played almost no role in the reporting of the expedition, despite putting out daily stories and photos from the rescue vessel.
In fact the story about the expedition only started to turn consistently negative (as a result of commentary from the usual suspects) in the public eye during a 48 hour period around the time of the rescue when they were unable to upload videos and regular social media updates. That vacuum gave space and amplified the negative commentary.
And this is the key point and reinforces what I have long believed. More than ever, media communications people and even marketers have a greater capacity to control and influence the flow of a story if they supply good video content.
This was further reinforced by a climate sensitivity paper that I put out on January 1 in the midst of all this. It also included a video explanation that has since found its way onto websites around the world, turned up in the Board Editorial of the Washington Post and has even been translated for French viewers.
The media's weakness is an opportunity
Right now the world's media is losing its best people and an extraordinary amount of corporate knowledge as they remove seasoned journalists and reporters to cut costs. The result is we now have major news organisations running on skeleton staff with inexperienced reporters.
There is also a need to be first to report news, which is creating an environment where stories are uploaded at speed and not checked properly. This is particularly true in the print media where in earlier times newspapers would expand on the eight second soundbites of radio and television and generate deeper and more informed articles. Today, this has been replaced by the need for exclusives and to be first.
The lack of staff and need for footage means that anyone who can supply even the most basic video footage will get space in our major media organisations.The online world also laps this stuff up.
Large organisations, like universities and multinational corporations, have the capacity to develop video departments and gain real control over the way stories are reported.
Universities are particularly well placed to exploit this as by their very nature they constantly produce news. It has astonished me that no tertiary institution in Australia seems to have devoted any real budget to this. In fact, the university where I am located is actually cutting back its video unit.
This doesn't just impact media, it also impacts the development of MOOCs and marketing opportunities.
An investment of a few hundred thousand dollars can have enormous impact on the ability of a university to control the way its science and other faculties are reported. It brings control of image, reputation and profile back to the institution and makes it less beholden to major media organisations.
How science can benefit
Being part of the furore around the Antarctic expedition has also made me stop and think about how poorly science has been communicated, particularly in the Antarctic.
Countries around the world have been visiting the Antarctic since the 1950s. And here we are now, in 2014, listening to a great number of scientists complaining about how this unfortunate event has impacted on their work and yet most of us don't even know what their work is.
It is remarkable in this age of social media, cheap $300 Go Pro cameras, free websites (like this one at Weebly) and essentially the ability to broadcast to the public direct, that this opportunity has not been seized on by Antarctic scientists. Instead we get the occasional drab blog entry and a few photos from one of the most exciting and fascinating places on Earth.
And if you want one perfect example of how poor scientists are when it comes to recognising communications opportunities then look no further than this Antarctic expedition. For 12 to 14 days the world's eyes have been focused on the Antarctic and for 12 to 14 days not one scientist has thought to actually write about the research that is being done in the Antarctic. A golden opportunity, missed.
Considering we spend millions of in taxpayer dollars on Antarctic science every year, this lack of ability to communicate is not good enough. A communications budget of as little as $2000 would make their work so much more accessible.
And imagine extending this comms budget to marine science, archaeology, expeditions to jungles and even just exciting work in the lab. These first hand encounters with scientists doing the work could only help the reputation of science. It doesn't require being assessed by journalists for its news worth or distorted by commentators to get publicity.
Science filmed by scientists, talked about by scientists is as exciting as it gets and best of all it is straight from the horses mouth without distortion.
We are in a new era of communication where we can supply media and control a story or bypass major media entirely and control the story ourselves.
And people do like and care about science. If you want an example, go and have a look at the I Fucking Love Science Facebook page (9.4 million likes at time of writing) or Veritaseum's YouTube channel (1 million followers). The public is well into science work and less enamored of the work of journalists every single day (figures declining everywhere).
In short, if you're scientific institution or university has not got a video unit, get one now. If it is cutting an existing unit to save costs then it is time to assemble a group of people to explain why this is a mistake.
It is remarkable that people working on the cutting edge dismiss or ignore communication opportunities that could bring understanding, improve institutional reputations and even attract funding.
If you are a scientist, it's time to stop complaining about the way your work is reported and report it yourself. All the tools are there.