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Cloudy with a chance of space weather

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Engagement

An analysis of a piece of digital outreach activity by Betony Kelly and Rebecca Lefort.

Image of the sun from space with a solar flare.
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution NASA/Goddard Space Flight Centre

It’s not every announcement that combines weather (surely every Brit’s favourite topic of conversation?!) with space (a subject which never fails to excite and amaze). So when the BIS digital team learnt the department was planning on announcing a £4.6 million investment in Space Weather forecasting, we were immediately interested.

The challenge we had, was that the press release was embargoed until 26 December - not exactly an easy day to get news coverage as most people are recovering from the excesses of Christmas Day...

But because the science community is incredibly active online, we believed this announcement would benefit from a push from the digital team, beyond the traditional press led outreach. We worked closely with the BIS press office, and with the Met Office, who were receiving the investment, to create a joined-up communications plan.

To support the announcement and in conjunction with the Met Office, we:

  • found an exciting picture of a solar flare - thanks Simon!
  • shared the amazing Met Office videos of space weather phenomena on YouTube
  • identified the key influencers who might be interested in the story - from science bloggers to people creating apps that relied on the GPS and satellite data
  • shared as much material as we could under embargo so teams could prepare their content in advance
  • contacted a range of social media content managers at key media sites, like the BBC
  • tweeted throughout the day of the announcement on Boxing Day (yes someone from the team did get up early to give the messages a push)
  • tweeted directly at influencers, to give them a nudge to retweet or link to content
  • kept our eye out for opportunities to push out messages again, for example when the BBC’s stargazing project launched later in January
  • worked with the leading science podcasting network , The Naked Scientists, to create a podcast on space weather, featuring Science Minister David Willetts (and then promoting that when it was broadcast)

Digital successes

Reached more than 6.4 million people with space weather information just through Twitter. This was worldwide, including Australia, the US, Canada, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan (the 6.4 million figure is a conservative estimate, using analysis tools such as Tweetreach).

Generated a lot of discussion and sharing of the story online - there were 7,261 tweets which included “space weather” or “#spaceweather”.

Respected scientists and influential commentators engaged positively with the conversation, such as;

Read a detailed look at tweets from key influencers.

Journalists saw the online interest and decided to use the peak in discussion to promote some of their historic work (John Burn-Murdoch and BBC Radio Four) which not only showed the volume of online discussion but also the extended the life of the story and brought it to new audiences.

The BBC tweet of its online story was clicked 1,136 times, it was retweeted 747 times. This chart highlights which news sources were shared most on Twitter (Govt includes BIS, Met Office, civil servants etc).

Detailed look at tweets from media.

Bloggers produced at least 15 original blog posts about the announcement, with BBC content used in blogs at least 23 times.

Science weather tweets from @bisgovuk itself were retweeted 58 times and favourited 25 times.

A tweet using an image of a solar flare (found in NASA’s picture gallery) and a video of space weather phenomenon worked well, generating more than a third of the total @bisgovuk retweets (20). This video was also viewed 210 times despite being unlisted and requiring a direct link.

The BIS press release had 870 unique page views over its first 2 days. Comparably, another BIS press release published on the same day, “Know your shopper’s rights before you hit the Christmas sales”, had 146 unique page views, while the release about Tim Peake going into space got 530 unique page views over the same period.

Digital engagement continued after the launch. When the BBC’s popular stargazing project began on Jan 7, @bisgovuk tweeted about the project, with a reference to space weather.

This direct engagement led to the following tweet from @BBCStargazing, linking to the original BBC story about the investment, expanding the coverage still further.

UK has spent £4.6m on its own space-weather prediction service - it'll be 1 of only 2 worldwide.

What next?

The digital team also worked with David Willetts’ private office to arrange an interview with the Naked Scientists podcast and radio show in January on the topic of space weather. We’ve also built on this relationship to ensure the Minister will be interviewed again on the popular show when he visits the American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference in Feb [update: this has now happened so we've added in the links].

We will continue to update the influencer lists with the people and stakeholder groups who interacted with the story, and draw on them for future announcements.


Digital engagement increases the reach of traditional press releases - the space weather announcement press release was viewed almost 6 times higher than the consumer rights release from the same day, which didn't have any additional digital engagement. Much of this traffic was driven by online sources.

Contact key influencers directly (but with respect) - by trying to understand who in the science community might be interested, we were able to be really targeted in our outreach. Minutes after @bisgovuk mentioned the funding to @rogerhighfield (science journalist and director of external affairs at the Science Museum) he had tweeted the story, and soon after the Science Museum followed.

Don't forget to help join-up teams (even those in the same organisations) - by contacting the separate BBC entities individually (for example the user-generated-content as well as the social media and online news desks) the story got coverage in a variety of different ways, including during a weather forecast and even peaked the interest of the Outside Broadcast team.

Tweet with pictures - @bisgovuk’s most popular tweet by a large margin included both an image and a video, shared 4 times more than those that were just text. Although there wasn’t an obvious picture immediately to hand we were able to use someone else’s (NASA) with huge success.

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