OR/14/019 BGS communications: audience and context

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Mitchell, C J, Nice, S E, Stevenson, J P, Thomas, J E, Nash, G V and Noakes, L. 2014. Broadcasting the science stories of BGS. British Geological Survey Internal Report, OR/14/058.

The BGS audience

The BGS communicates its science with the following key audiences:

  • General public: A significant part of the general public are interested in those aspects of the geosciences that impact on their daily lives such as groundwater flooding, landslides, sinkholes, and the development of energy and mineral resources. They are also interested in the ‘big name’ geological research on dinosaurs, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and space weather events such as the northern lights. This large audience typically learns about the BGS and its work through the broadcast media channels of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News. In addition, they also learn about BGS science through the print media, the online sites of both the print and broadcast media, and the public engagement activities of the BGS, such as the open day held in June 2013.
Figure 3 BGS Open Day 2013 event What makes a smart phone? (as devised and run by BGS industrial minerals specialist Clive Mitchell, on the right of the photo)
  • Government and other decision makers: Government and other decision makers are key stakeholders of the BGS including government departments such as BIS (Business, Innovation and Skills), DECC (Department for Energy and Climate Change) and DfID (Department for International Development). In addition, the European Commission, the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, local authorities and other organisations such as the national park authorities are also stakeholders of the BGS. They directly provide the largest part of the funding for BGS research ranging from real-time monitoring (including earthquakes, space weather and landslides), modelling (including 3D geological models of Great Britain, the environment and climate change) and guidance on resource development (including energy resources such as shale gas, groundwater and mineral resources such as tungsten and other critical raw materials).
  • Industry and private business: Industry, in the UK and internationally, is a significant stakeholder of the BGS and commissions research that draws upon the spectrum of the scientific expertise of the BGS. Business clients of the BGS come from a wide range of sectors including the following: construction, consultants and conveyancing, data providers and value added resellers, insurers and financial companies, those working in the marine and coastal environments, the minerals industry, oil and gas companies, power and energy companies, rail, road and pipelines operators, tourism and education and water companies (BGS, 2014[1]).
  • Academia: Academic institutions from across the world collaborate with the BGS on all aspects of its research including ‘internationally excellent’ research carried out by the National Isotope Geosciences Laboratory (NIGL), as well as BGS research on climate, the Quaternary and hydrogeology (NERC, 2013a[2]).
  • BGS staff and the wider NERC community: Communication with the ‘internal’ audience within the BGS, and others within the NERC, is increasingly important as the BGS changes in response to the need to ensure that it can continue to meet it strategic vision. Major changes that may occur include the ownership and governance of NERC centres (NERC, 2013b[3]) and the new centre for earth and marine science and technology in Edinburgh, The Sir Charles Lyell Centre (NERC, 2013c[4]).
  • Media: Science and news journalists in the broadcast, print and online media act as important messengers conveying the work of the BGS. The relationship between the media and the BGS is largely facilitated by the BGS communications team. There are some prominent and well-known scientists within the BGS that often communicate directly with the media including Dr Susan Loughlin (volcanologist), Andrew McKenzie (hydrogeologist), Professor Mike Stephenson (geologist), Dr Roger Musson (seismologist), Professor David Tappin (marine geologist) and Dr Helen Reeves (engineering geologist, as seen being interviewed by the BBC in Figure 4).
Figure 4 Dr Helen Reeves filming with the BBC in Tynemouth 2013.

The UK Government communications plan for 2014–15 outlines a vision to deliver ‘exceptional communications’ (GCN, 2014[5]). The priorities are:

  • to build a stronger, more competitive economy and a fairer society
  • to campaign to improve the lives of people and communities in the UK
  • to support for our public services
  • to deliver responsive and informative communications in times of emergency and crises
  • to enhance the UK’s reputation.

Emphasis is placed on increasing the professionalism of the Government Communication Service, making digital communications a core skill for all government communicators, excellence in internal communications and maximising available resources (e.g. by standardising the use of low or no-cost campaigns). The Government Digital Strategy (key message ‘digital by default’) commits government to remain a leader in the open data revolution by putting more data into the public domain to underpin social and economic growth (Cabinet Office, 2013[6]). The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills policy paper ‘Engaging the public in science and engineering’ states that for the continuing prosperity of the UK we need high levels of skills in science, technology, engineering and maths and citizens that value them. The key messages are that new audiences need to be targeted outside those already interested in science and that engagement needs to be ‘where people naturally congregate, rather than expecting them to come to us’ (BIS, 2014[7]). Global trends that have influenced the development of the BGS communications strategy include:

  • Mobile went mainstream: The reach of traditional media channels continues to be eroded by the rapid spread of web-based alternatives, especially on mobile devices. It is anticipated that the proportion of internet traffic accessed using mobile devices will surpass that accessed using desktop computers in 2014 (WPP, 2014[8]). An increasing proportion of BGS data is now accessed using mobile devices such as smart phones (Figure 5) especially via the popular BGS app iGeology (which has been downloaded 180 000 times since its launch in 2010 (www.bgs.ac.uk/iGeology). As a consequence of this trend the BGS website is now fully compliant with mobile device standards to ensure the web content is more readily accessible.
Figure 5 iGeology app as used on an iPad.
  • Transparency and trust: The BGS can only maintain its credibility as a trusted source of authoritative information by remaining impartial, objective and transparent. Providing relevant, timely and useful information using multiple channels of communication will help to engage people in a way that suits them rather than the organisation.
  • Social media: Social media is fast becoming the top destination for the delivery and consumption of news and information. This is the world of the ‘always on’ with the expectation of an immediate response from an audience that is seeking to engage with organisations. The challenge is to prioritise day-to-day responses, engaging with ‘digital influencers’ and creating a community of ‘superfans’ to help champion the organisation. The key is to be timely, honest and transparent (WPP, 2014[8]).
  • Citizen science: The new phenomenon of citizen science enables the public to collect or interpret data to help advance scientific knowledge. The BGS has benefitted from this via its ‘Have you felt an earthquake?’ and ‘Report a landslide’ online questionnaires. Direct dialogue between scientists and the public through social media is already a reality. BGS smart phone apps such as mySoil allow the upload of soil information.
  • Science stories: There is a need for organisations to explain why they exist, what they do and how their work helps society. In order to make these explanations engaging, there is a place for meaningful storytelling, finding the narratives in scientific research and the human interest aspects. Organisations such as the BGS need to explain the impact and value of their research to counter the ‘so what’ question.
  • Image is everything: Communication channels that use the visual medium such as cinema and television, as well as the web-based channels such as YouTube (Figure 6), Instagram and Tumblr are very popular and command huge audiences. The typical newspaper article may reach audiences of several hundred thousand people, whereas a TV broadcast will typically reach millions. The use of images, videos and infographics as a means of communicating complex research findings, and their impact, is growing and will become a major means for organisations to explain what they are about.
Figure 6 BGS YouTube channel (bgschannel).
  • Analytics and evidence: More emphasis is now being placed on measuring the effectiveness of communications. The collection of communications data and its analysis, often referred to as ‘analytics’, includes recording the number of website visitors, online media monitoring (as shown in Figure 2) and social media statistics. A high-level aim of communicators is to raise the profile or public awareness of organisations such as the BGS. However, measuring the success of efforts to raise the profile is not something that can be easily achieved, there is no quantifiable measure. The perceived profile of an organisation can only really be gauged by consulting stakeholders, gauging their opinion and collecting anecdotal evidence.


  1. BRITISH GEOLOGICAL SURVEY. 2014. Services for business. (Keyworth, Nottingham: British Geological Survey.) http://www.bgs.ac.uk/services/services_for_you/business/home.html
  2. NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL (NERC). 2013a. Evaluation of NERC centres 2013. Available from http://www.nerc.ac.uk/latest/news/nerc/centre-eval/
  3. NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL (NERC). 2013b. Ownership and governance of NERC centres. Available from http://www.nerc.ac.uk/latest/news/nerc/governance/
  4. NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL (NERC). 2013c. New Earth and Marine Science and Technology centre. Available from http://www.nerc.ac.uk/press/releases/2013/82-newcentre/
  5. GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATION NETWORK. 2014. Government Communications Plan 2014/ 15. Available from: https://gcn.civilservice.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Government-Communications- Plan_201415_webSmll.pdf
  6. CABINET OFFICE. 2013. Government Digital Strategy: December 2013. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-digital-strategy/government-digital-strategy
  7. DEPARTMENT FOR BUSINESS, INNOVATION AND SKILLS. 2014. Engaging the public in science and engineering (policy). Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/engaging-the-public-in-science-and-engineering- -3
  8. 8.0 8.1 WPP. 2014. 10 GLOBAL COMMUNICATION TRENDS IN 2014. Available from: http://www.wpp.com/wpp/marketing/publicrelations/10-global-communication-trends-2014/