Student Corner

Utilizing social media for your research: A student’s guide to success

An Interview with Mel Miller, Strategic Communications Director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at The Pennsylvania State University.

By Jonathan Reader

Name: Mel Miller

Position: Strategic communications director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center (PRC) at The Pennsylvania State University 

Education: Master’s in communication from the University of Baltimore

In your words, what is your job description?

My job is 50 percent communications director for the PRC and 50 percent working on a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) project on social-emotional learning (SEL). For the center, I’ve been focused on expanding the visibility of some of the truly remarkable research projects being conducted by our PIs. While it’s important to conduct research and publish in the field, it’s also important to get the message to those outside of the scientific realm, to those in other industries, to policymakers and to the general public. I also led the development of a brand-new, user-friendly website that reflects the passion for prevention that is practiced in the center, and includes a more extensive portfolio of projects and customized bios for research faculty, affiliates and staff. For the RJWF project, I am overseeing the development of 10 policy briefs that highlight the importance of developing social-emotional skills, sometimes referred to as “soft skills.” The purpose behind the project is to synthesize existing research, streamline findings and create a condensed report that may be of interest to policymakers, community leaders and others.  Last year, we held a conference in Washington, D.C., to coincide with one of the topics, “Teacher Stress and Health,” bringing together professionals in the field of education, research and advocacy to discuss how SEL can improve the well-being of teachers and prevent negative consequence for student achievement. In October, we will hold a second conference on the economic benefits of investing in children’s social and emotional development.

How did you get interested in this type of work?

In grad school, I took a class on clear and concise communications where we had to rewrite government documents, eliminating redundancies and acronyms, shortening sentences, and simplifying language. That experience opened my eyes to how much “bad” writing there was out there. I found that I really enjoyed the challenge of taking technical information and making it understandable for non-technical people. I discovered that much of the time “less is more” when it comes to clear communications.

How has social media changed the way we report research?

If used properly, you can reach so many more people. I hear researchers say that they don’t need to use social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogs), but it is such a powerful tool. More and more people in the scientific arena are using it. Plus, it’s a great way to simplify your message. Plus, anyone can have a website today. Having a web presence is so important as long as you keep your information fresh. It is how you increase your following and tells the world that you are a reliable source of information. Social media and websites are also great ways to network and find collaborators. 

What are some pros of using social media to report your own research?

Other than reaching a wider audience, it makes it easy for you to tailor your message to different audiences. You might tell your story one way on LinkedIn and another on Twitter.

What are some best practices you would recommend for those wanting to use social media to discuss their research?

First of all, is to just put your research out there in as many channels as you can find. People tend not to do this from what I’ve seen, but they should. Put it on Facebook, use some kind of graphic to go along with it or animated gifs. Post videos! Link to a YouTube channel. For example, we have several SEL videos on our new website. Analytics show that websites with videos will get a high score in user engagement.  We live in a visual world today. Pictures can communicate volumes.

How would you suggest that we PR our own research on social media?

Work with someone in a communications role and reach out for help with publicity. People WANT to hear about these projects and the good use of taxpayer dollars. It is a great idea to talk to someone who knows how to position your research and get more visibility.

What are some social media pitfalls to avoid when discussing your own research?

You have to be honest. You have to use social skills. And you have to display integrity. As much as social media can help you, it can really harm you. Be respectful. It’s okay to be passionate about what you do, but make sure the research is at the forefront, because it is easy to cross the line from research to opinion. Know your audience because you need to speak appropriately to different audiences. In the old days, you had one message. But nowadays, you need to customize your message – like you would customize a resume.

What are your favorite social media platforms?

Facebook and Twitter. Facebook for older audiences and Twitter for younger ones. They work well together and span generations. It’s all about reaching wide audiences.

Thank you so much for your time. Do you have any last minute tips?

Start now. Start early. It can take years to get a good following.