Social Media Strategy: Cristina Mittermeier on SeaLegacy’s Ocean Conservation Efforts

March 11, 2019

By Conor Risch

© Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

To maximize the impact of their posts, SeaLegacy usually provide informative captions and often include specific calls to action. In her caption for this image, taken on an expedition to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Mittermeier wonders what the King Penguin is thinking while examining krill. She adds, “Krill are the foundation of the ecosystem and every creature from birds to whales depends on healthy krill populations, which in turn are tied to the fate of the ice.”

Social media storytelling is a just one part of the overall communications strategy of SeaLegacy, the ocean conservation organization founded by photographers Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen. But as their first point of contact with their audience—they have 1.4 million Instagram followers and roughly 2,000 YouTube subscribers—as well as a platform where they educate viewers, and inspire action, social media is crucial to their work.

It was another social media-fueled movement that was part of what inspired them to found SeaLegacy in 2014. After witnessing the toppling of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring, Mittermeier imagined creating an uprising on behalf of the world’s oceans. “I thought, If we can use social media to create a revolution around dictators, why can’t we use it for the environment?’” she recalls. After years of shooting for magazines, National Geographic in particular, she and Nicklen also felt they needed to create their own distribution channels so they could tell stories with impact. Too frequently, when working with layers of editors and designers, “what ends up being published is not necessarily what you went out to do,” she says.

The SeaLegacy team includes Mittermeier, Nicklen, a staff of 18 and an extended collective of visual storytellers. They undertake expeditions to document ocean environments around the world. Using their photographs and video, they build advocacy campaigns around issues such as salmon farming and oceanic oil and gas exploration. A SeaLegacy Instagram campaign in 2017, for instance, helped convince Norwegian politicians not to drill for oil in the Lofoten archipelago by publicizing public feedback about the proposed exploration. They also work with experts to identify specific solutions, rather than just identifying problems, to offer a message of hope.

SeaLegacy begins its storytelling by capturing the highest quality still images and 8K video while out on expeditions, Mittermeier says. They can then “parse [that content] any number of ways,” including into digestible social media posts. Because they are pursuing several different stories at once, their posts on Instagram are like short chapters from larger narratives.

© Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

In an Instagram post from December 2018, Mittermeier wrote, “Spend any length of time in the water with whales, and you may start to understand how devastated I am by the news that Japan is leaving the International Whaling Commission to resume full-scale commercial whaling in 2019. I’ve been graced with so many beautiful moments in the company of whales to know they are worth cherishing and protecting. I think of the tight family units of sperm whales who openly invited us into their world last month. We owe it to them and every other whale to stand up and stop cetacean hunting for good. Every one of us has a voice and has economic power. We cannot be afraid to use them.” © Cristina Mittermeier/SeaLegacy

On social media, Mittermeier says, they’re “pioneering something that we call the Positive Impact Communications Loop.” That starts with a great visual narrative. The captions they write for the posts are relatively long for platforms where viewers are used to scrolling and quick reads, so they “lead with the most interesting aspect of it, which oftentimes can be a personal anecdote,” Mittermeier says. “If you can hook people in the first few lines, they usually want to read through the end.” If they are asking readers for action, to donate $5 or to sign a petition, for instance, or to join “The Tide,” their group of monthly donors who get access to exclusive content, they are very specific about their request and what they’re trying to achieve. They then close the loop by telling viewers how their contribution made an impact, even if a campaign was unsuccessful. “When we go back and show them the positive impact that their contribution made, they usually are super excited and they want to do more,” she says.

SeaLegacy posts on Instagram also foster conversations among their viewers. They encourage these exchanges but also monitor them closely, interjecting if people insult one another or spread misinformation. “We mediate and answer [questions] and sometimes we even direct-message people if needed,” Mittermeier says. Often they refer people to longer stories on the SeaLegacy site or to other resources for more information.

One of the positive things about social media is how it’s made environmentalism more accessible. A veteran of the environmental movement, Mittermeier recalls a time when you almost had to have a degree to engage. “It was elitist and difficult [to find an] entry point,” she recalls. “Through social media and through photography, we have been able to invite people to become part of the environmental conversation,” she says. “It is amazing. I love this global conversation we’re having with people from all over the world on all sorts of issues and at the end of the day, truly it is to make people feel like there’s hope, there’s movement forward and we don’t need to feel defeated.”

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