photo of a video-editing team
Behind the scenes, the video-editing team was the nerve center of the communications effort. With Puddles the Blue Goose, they are, from left, Jennifer Strickland, Megan Nagel, Cortney White, Chuck Traxler, Laura Whitehouse, Dorothy Amatucci, Tina Shaw, Joe Donahoe, Kayt Jonsson and Keith Shannon. (Bob Danley/USFWS)

It’s an exciting time to be a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service communicator.


The Service is trying to keep pace with shifts in how people get information. We’re bringing in new talent and training our experienced communicators to embrace new media so we can tell our conservation story in real time in new ways. We’re modernizing Web sites and leveraging communications capacity across programs and regions.


Until recently, though, some have perceived this paradigm shift as a fad—as if Change were knocking on the door, asking to come in. At the Refuge System’s Conserving the Future conference, Change kicked open the door and declared its intention to stay. We witnessed the moment that modern communications became integral to how the Service achieves its mission.


Like any groundbreaking change, it started with a great idea. The Conserving the Future planners wanted to produce two simultaneous conferences—one for those in Madison and a duplicate online for the thousands of staff, partners and others working across the country. Both versions would use new-media tools to engage participants. We’d never done anything like this before.


To turn this idea into action, Conserving the Future communications coordinator Michael Gale knew he needed help. Communications and outreach staff members from the Service regions, the Washington office and the National Wildlife Refuge Association were named to serve on three teams: virtualization, multimedia and video, and communications and engagement. The two of us were recruited to integrate the work of these teams into a cohesive operation.


About 30 staff members spent months organizing, planning and securing equipment. Using lessons learned from the 2010 Gulf oil spill and Northeast Region biologists conference, we established a communications command structure focused on broadcasting the conference live and getting news out quickly and accurately. Then, for one week in July, key communicators and new-media experts from across the Service put aside their day jobs and concentrated on what could be.


Before we arrived in Madison, many of us had never met. After brief introductions, the teams set up a video production war room, a public news desk with a team of mojos (mobile journalists) and correspondents, social media stations and a live broadcast center at the Monona Terrace Center. Our experiment had begun.


Testing to the Max


The day before the conference—to test the system and gauge how much coverage we realistically could produce—we intentionally maxed out our news desk and video production operations. By the opening session on Tuesday, July 12, we were running on all cylinders.


The result was better than any of us had expected.


If you haven’t done so already, please check out the archives at www.AmericasWildlife.org/newswire and www.AmericasWildlife.org/live. We offered nine hours of live programming daily—the largest Service broadcast ever. More than 50 news reports, complete with videos and photos, were delivered online throughout the conference. They covered workshops, youth delegates, Friends, efforts to green the conference, plenary speakers, lecturers and more. We distributed our content to the entire social media capacity of the Service and the National Wildlife Refuge Association—an audience of 75,000 people nationwide. Speeches delivered by the Secretary, Director and refuge chief were made available on YouTube.


Conference attendees took notice, too. Two large screens flanking the plenary stage displayed the Twitter feed—showcasing what people were saying about the proceedings in real time. During Director Dan Ashe’s call to action speech, many in the audience tweeted their instant feedback; he signed the Conserving the Future implementation charter live on an iPad.


Four back-to-back social media stations allowed attendees to tweet and write Facebook posts about the goings-on and the Refuge System vision. Many participants received conference alerts via text message. Questions from the public for the Secretary came from Twitter and text messages. The coolness factor was in full view when the Stepping Up to Leadership class at NCTC texted the Director from 800 miles away to ask "what you see as the role of field personnel in LCCs."


Our team learned what is possible when skilled communications professionals from all regions and programs come together. Our team learned what the full capacity of the Service’s communications effort could look like, if concentrated for a brief time. The conference helped the Service and the Refuge System pave a new way to tell our story and to be more relevant to the American public.


Change is here—and it is us.


Kyla Hastie and Jason Holm are Service assistant regional directors for external affairs in the Northeast Region and the Midwest Region, respectively.