I started in communications in 1986 with a telephone and a phone book. Combine that with in-person meetings and the written word, and those were our ways of reaching people.
Today, we’re using Snapchat to send videos and photos with crazy (and hilarious) filters. Messages self-destruct after a few seconds once they have been viewed on the other end. Even the story feature, which publishes a compilation of photos and videos, lasts only 24 hours – but hey, that’s a long time in our new world of communications.
30 years ago, we may not have had special effects like this:
A video posted by Burness (@burnesscomm) on Sep 22, 2016 at 7:55am PDT
But whether you are talking on the phone or sending a snap, stories have remained the one constant since I started in this field eons ago. Let’s go down memory lane.
Back in the early 1990s, we partnered with the International Potato Center (CIP) – a research center working on root and tuber farming research to reduce poverty and hunger – to elevate the Center’s important work before donors and other key audiences around the world. Every year, we’d release multiple stories in a variety of traditional ways— through symposiums, press releases and field visits. Good stories were the bedrock of our success.
For example, Richard Sawyer, the founding director general of CIP, subsisted on stolen seed potatoes while he was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. That story helped to land him an interview on a network talk show.
The late Carlos Ochoa discovered more potato varieties than any human on earth in his lifetime. He was like the Indiana Jones of the potato world. We pitched his personal story to the Style section of the Washington Post, suggesting that if you like French fries, you should thank Carlos Ochoa. The resulting headline: “Raider of the Lost Spud; One Potato, Two Potato: For Peru’s Carlos Ochoa, the Search for New Species Never Ends.”
And we told the story of potatoes themselves. Before heirloom varieties of crops were in style, we lured feature writers to trek up to the high Andes to see thousands of varieties of potatoes. There was a potato to decrease one’s husband’s libido before he traveled away from home, and another potato variety women ate to nourish themselves after giving birth. The New York Times quoted one of CIP’s scientists, John Dodds, as saying, “The true treasure of the Andes was not the gold the Spanish conquerors sought but the potatoes they trampled.”
[caption id=”attachment_8069” align=”alignnone” width=”1024”] Potatoes at market in Arequipa, Peru. Photo credit: Creative Commons, Flickr user Jagubal.[/caption]
No story is complete without conflict. So with science journalists, we talked of the potato’s enemies, such as beetles, nematodes, bacteria, fungi, viruses and viroids, and CIP’s pioneering work to address these threats. One science story was about the “hairy potato,” scientist KV Raman’s hybrid potato variety with goo-tipped hairs on its leaves that trapped aphids and beetles without the use of insecticides.
With these types of stories, we reminded journalists of how relying on just one kind of potato variety in Ireland paved the way for late blight to wipe out the crop, causing one million people to starve to death in the Irish Potato Famine. In this context, the value of CIP’s genebank became clear: the genebank houses a huge collection of crop diversity, enabling researchers to breed in traits that give crops built-in defenses to stay one step ahead of threats.
These stories required strong collaboration between scientists and communicators. Our work was overseen by Ed Sulzberger, who was the communications and fundraising director for CIP. He was a genius at finding stories.
We are still collaborating with excellent communicators to find and share great stories about agriculture. Recently, we worked with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to promote a research finding that crops from other places — essentially “foreign” crops — dominate most of a country’s diet. Italy’s tomatoes and Thailand’s chilies originated in South America, for example.
And here’s the cool part: unlike in the 1990s, we now have ways to amplify these stories through social media. NPR covered the foreign crops story, for example, and their article, “A Map of Where Your Food Originated May Surprise You,” reached more than 1.5 million people on Twitter. It was tweeted by Guy Kawasaki, the “chief evangelist” of Canva, formerly of Apple, to people who, decades ago, back when I was using a telephone and phone book, may never have seen it.
Good stories take the same thing now they did then — creativity plus substance, and a little imagination. And, if we tell them right, they do the same thing now that they did then — stick — not self-destruct from one’s brain in 10 seconds.