Expanding Our Reach: How AFS Staff and Units Have Advanced Communications in Just a Few Years

Sometimes it seems like biologists would prefer interacting more with fish than with people. But we all know that in this high-paced world of technology, multisector demands on natural resources, and influences of policy on the survival of the fish and the people who depend on them, we cannot afford to keep our science and knowledge to ourselves.

Historically, AFS staff and various Units have worked to promote fisheries science through a variety of channels and activities. However, in the past 3 years, major advances have been made in both internal and external communications. Beginning with an outside assessment and followed by several AFS Management Committee and Governing Board discussions, AFS has refined a communications strategic plan with the goal to improve organizational capacity and reach both internal and external audiences through staff and Unit actions.

Building this systematic approach for AFS communications required a strategy that allowed for flexibility, creativity, and a method of coordination that could reach across all social channels. The communications structure currently follows a thre-pronged approach, formulated to ensure consistent exchanges and actions through three new AFS groups: (1) a Communications Committee, serving as a nexus for coordinated information and action; (2) a Science Communication Section, serving as a member community for “sci-comm” knowledge and skills sharing; and (3) an AFS Communications Department consisting off staff who are working strategically with AFS members and others to promote AFS fisheries science to policymakers, stakeholders, and the public.


Initially formed by AFS Past President Donna Parrish, a small group facilitated by Gwen White tackled the charge to hire a communications consultant to review past actions and explore impressions of AFS in the broader fisheries community. The culminating product, “A Guide for Building Increased Member Engagement and Long-term Public Awareness,” was used to develop the AFS Communications Strategic Plan, completed in August 2015. The AFS Communications Committee has now evolved as a nexus for other AFS committees, Units, Divisions, and staff to keep all entities well informed of AFS related programs and actions, as well as to develop activities, discuss outreach strategies, form strategic alliances, and share expertise across units. The next step in committee development will be to establish it as an AFS Standing Committee and transition leadership to Julie Defillipi Simpson.

Through monthly online meetings, the committee, staff, and officers work together to develop a strategic approach and translate it to consistent, flexible, and creative action; produce guidance on key communications topics such as social media standards and guidelines; advise on design and deployment of tactics and tools; and identify needs and opportunities for applying resources and training across AFS.


Recognizing that science communication has become a discipline in its own right, the new Science Communication Section serves as a practitioner community for those interested in communications in its many forms. This networking hub and talent pool of AFS members seeks to address the various needs in the communications arena, including training, enhancing skills, highlighting resources, or hosting opportunities to enhance knowledge. The Section will play a key role for AFS to encourage members with passion and expertise to explore effective ways of promoting fisheries science to policymakers, stakeholders, and the public.


A triumvirate of AFS staff is rapidly advancing communications opportunities and tools on behalf of AFS members. As the new Communications Director, hired in 2015, Martha Wilson manages AFS external and internal communications and provides strategic guidance to the Communications Team (staff) and Communications Committee (members). Wilson is responsible for managing the HQ team as they promote AFS science and policy. She oversees audience-focused mini-campaigns, policy communications, media relations and organizational brand maintenance. The team shares social media and materials development responsibilities.

Sarah Harrison manages Fisheries magazine with Senior Science Editor Jeff Schaeffer and leads construction of the new AFS blog, which launched in mid-2017. She also serves as writer, graphic designer, and special projects manager (e.g., the climate project). She is currently upgrading the look and feel of the magazine to correspond with the design of the new blog.

Beth Beard supervises all website activities, including development and maintenance and coordination of the AFS Units “family” of websites. She serves as writer/editor, Facebook editor, and special projects manager, and has overseen an impressive array of materials development throughout the year, including the annual report and an array of membership and meetings-related materials.

We are grateful to have outstanding leadership and expertise represented by the staff, contractors, officers, and Unit leadership, with enthusiastic support from AFS Executive Director Doug Austen.


For internal member and Unit audiences, staff led actions, guided and approved by the Governing Board, officers, Communications Committee, and Units, to:

  • prepare strategic goals and guidelines for communications tactics that can be deployed by Units or staff, as appropriate.
  • produce an operational work plan so that the Communications Committee and the Governing Board could follow staff progress as we implemented new programs.
  • establish weekly Communications Team staff meetings and biweekly website meetings, while playing an active role in the monthly Communication Committee conference calls.
  • develop a strong relationship with the Communications Committee and present our collaborative goals/accomplishments to the Governing Board at both 2016 meetings to ensure maximum transparency in our planning and implementation.
  • promote continuing education and development programs.
  • provide training to staff in WordPress and social media outreach.

For improved outreach to external audiences, staff led actions, guided and approved by the Governing Board, officers, Communications Committee, and Units, that have:

  • improved the navigation of the website so that we could, in turn, help Units set up and manage their own sites.
  • archived old content and cleaned up current content on the website, while hiring a systems manager to quickly handle crashes and other critical backend issues.
  • doubled social media interactivity on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
  • produced social media standards and guidelines for the Society, which in turn provided a model for Units, as needed.
  • improved the look and content of the e-newsletter and doubled readership in the process.
  • presented a communications (social media focused) symposium and workshop at Kansas City and conducted audience research with surveys and focus groups.
  • produced several quality materials (e.g., annual report, membership postcards, display panels, brochures).
  • proactively approached Taylor & Francis (publisher) about increasing the number of members and nonmembers accessing our journals and magazine articles (they produced an analysis of quantifiable improvements accordingly).
  • provided comprehensive communications support for a number of policy programs and events alongside policy staff.
  • initiated an Annual Meeting (Tampa) communications calendar and organized a special public panel, in an effort to generate more media interest in the meeting.
  • written press releases and organization key messages addressing breaking news stories that affected AFS, directly and indirectly.
  • explored options for the rebranding development process in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of AFS.


We’ve accomplished a lot for just under 2 years of intensive implementation, but we are not done yet! In the upcoming year, our goals are to:

  • launch the new AFS blog, allowing us to promote AFS science more effectively across the different communications media
    platforms (website, social media, and beyond).
  • increase the number of members and nonmembers reading AFS journals, books, and magazine articles.
  • provide more comprehensive tools for Units, empowering them to conduct communications more independently.
  • continue to promote policy, membership, continuing education, and development programs through effective mini-campaigns.
  • increase media coverage of AFS science through traditional media and social media, for example, by playing a more active role with the Annual Meeting team and increasing media interest in Tampa (and Atlantic City).
  • start the AFS rebranding process (officially) by securing Governing Board approved funding for phase 1 research, followed by phase 2 proposals from at least two agencies. (We have already produced a document for Units transitional branding recommendations creating logos and taglines now—but the official branding document will need sound research as its foundation for us to successfully move to phase 2 in the process.)

There are plenty of areas for engagement and a lot of excitement for sharing experiences and resources on the Communications Committee and in the new Science Communication Section.

If you want to join the action, please contact incoming committee chair Julie Defilippi Simpson at [email protected] or Science Communication Section representative Julie Claussen at [email protected]

Members click below for the November 2017 Fisheries magazine’s complete issue. Non-members, join here.

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