Episode 7: Katharine Uhrich of Field Museum

My guest today is Katharine Uhrich from The Field Museum, and we’re talking about social media. Social media has become a standard part of most marketing and communications strategies, but just showing up on Twitter isn’t enough to keep potential visitors engaged. The best accounts to follow don’t just interact with their followers, they regularly provide entertainment, information, and something of value in every post.

Katharine is the social media manager at Chicago’s Field Museum. Day in and out, the Field’s social media feeds are filled with high-quality updates from its collection, its researchers, and its visitors and fans. And sometimes with a little help from its Twitter-famous T .rex, SUE. I wanted to know how Katharine manages this vibrant presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, in a way that isn’t just engaging but also aligned with her museum’s mission. So I invited her to join me on the podcast.


NICK: Hi, and welcome to What’s On. The Cuberis podcast. I’m Nick Faber. My guest today is Katharine Uhrich from The Field Museum, and we’re talking about social media.

You know, maybe I’m stating the obvious here, but, in some ways, social media has become the 21st century equivalent of fan mail. Think about Twitter, for instance. Celebrities are more accessible than ever. Unlike the old days where you had to find an address in a magazine and hope your favorite pop star or actor gets your letter, and then really hope you hear back from them, today, there’s a pretty good chance that you can have a real-time interaction with them.

And furthermore, social media has made celebrities out of people, places, and inanimate objects who would have been harder to reach in whatever niche they occupy.

Now you can tweet at an airline. Or a baseball team. Or a dinosaur.

But accessibility does not a Twitter follower make. The best accounts to follow don’t just interact with their fans, they regularly provide entertainment, information, something of value in every post.

Katharine Uhrich is the social media manager at Chicago’s Field Museum. Day in and out, the Field social media feeds are filled with high-quality updates from its collection, its researchers, and its visitors and fans. And sometimes with a little help from its Twitter-famous T .rex, SUE. I wanted to know how Katharine manages this vibrant presence in a way that isn’t just engaging, but also aligned with her museum’s mission, so I invited her to join me over Skype.

Here’s Katharine.

KATHARINE: We try to be very friendly and welcoming, obviously inclusive and respectful. And sort of generally be seen as an authority, but not authoritative. We also try to be clever and fun, you know. Talk like a real person to real people. And a lot of that voice comes directly from our mission and our brand. So I think social’s a great opportunity for us to be an extension of that, and to be the living personality of the brand and mission online.

And, obviously, depending on the platform, the voice expresses itself in different ways. For instance, on Facebook, I’d say we’re a little bit more formal and by the book. Whereas, obviously, on Twitter, you can have a lot more fun. The pace is more rapid. There’s more opportunity for witty banter and whatnot.

NICK: And emojis.

KATHARINE: Yes, and many emojis.

NICK: And so, the SUE account does use a lot of animated GIFs and emoji, and makes a lot of jokes and is sort of irreverent. Would you say that, as the Field social media manager, that you’re taking any kind of cues from that, as far as what people respond to? Or is the SUE account helping to influence what you do as far as that kind of friendly voice and the style of emoji and banter and stuff?

KATHARINE: Yeah, absolutely. I think the SUE account and the main accounts are really great foils for each other and they each allow the other to do something sort of unique. For us, it’s a great opportunity and asset that we have both to use and play off of each other. I think of SUE — SUE is a fossilized Tyrannosaurus Rex that’s 67 million years old, so the personality is as such on Twitter. They’re sarcastic and sassy, and they do a lot of things that the main account would never touch. And I think that’s great, but we’re able to have this kind of caretaker-kid relationship that’s sort of fun at times and allows the museum to step into an area that it might not normally go.

For instance, I remember a moment when SUE was mentioning that they wanted an otter from the Shedd Aquarium, and the museum was able to step in and say, “Well, until you prove to us that you can be responsible for cleaning the Tsavo Lions’ litter box, we’re gonna have to wait and see.”

And opportunities like that show a little more clever side or humane side of the museum, and I think that comes across a lot more and a lot better when you’re in conversation with someone else and not just trying to create that in your own feed.

And I think SUE is sort like that high school student, that cool kid. Not the popular kid, but the kid that really was into things because they were just cool. They just had a passion about them. So SUE brings in so many people that might not necessarily think of themselves as museum lovers. And that’s so awesome because maybe they find SUE, maybe they find us, maybe they don’t find us, but at the end of the day, both the SUE account and the main account are trying to educate and spread this love of natural history to our followers. And so I think they take two very different approaches but at the end of the day the end up at the same spot.

NICK: That’s cool! And we’re mostly talking about the Twitter accounts here, but as the social media manager, what other channels do you manage, and what other channels is Field on in general? And in the questions I sent over to you, I did mention the Shark Week quiz on BuzzFeed. Are there any other channels that we might be surprised to find a museum on?

KATHARINE: Yeah, the Buzzfeed was done — I actually started in December, and that was done before I came on, and I think pretty much anyone can go onto BuzzFeed. It’s kind of like a fun little thing they’ve got set up where anyone can create a quiz. So we just used that functionality to create that and link to it during Shark Week. But we are — the Field is on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Those are our main accounts. We do have a Snapchat account that, for instance, with our current exhibition Antarctic Dinosaurs we have a filter up there that people, when they’re in the museum, that filter will pop up and they can use it. But we don’t do too much on Snapchat because, essentially, as the social media manager I’m responsible for strategizing, executing, gathering content, reporting, all of that. And I also work very closely with Caitlin Kearney, who’s our digital content and engagement manager. So we’re essentially one and a quarter or one and a half people who manage the social media for, you know, one of the world’s largest natural history museums. So I think we’re really in a place where we feel like it’s a quality over quantity game for us. And we would rather be in fewer places, having more sound strategy, and putting better content out there than trying to spread across so many different platforms.

And of late, I don’t think we’re really on any non-traditional channels, or anywhere that would be especially surprising, but we are trying to really dig into the functionality of these various social media platforms. For instance, creating content for IGTV. On Instagram, doing more with the stories there. We are trying to really up our game with Facebook live.

So it’s sort of like, there’s so much that is constantly evolving and changing with each one of these platforms on their own, that I feel like you can do a lot without being on a lot of channels.

NICK: Yeah, so, how do you decide which channels to focus on? Do you get feedback from your audience and say, oh, we get more traction on Instagram so we should be putting more of our energy into there? With so many options, how do you choose?

KATHARINE: I think for us right now, we found that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all very deserving of our attention. Each one has a slightly different audience, has a slightly different voice. So it really is great if we can be on all of those. And, I think we really let the platform dictate what kind of content we put there.

So, obviously, if we have really visually striking and gorgeous images, those would go on Instagram and be talked about in a little bit different way than if we, you know, have a cool photo from the archive that might be of lesser quality, but still has a really interesting story behind it, where that might go on Facebook or Twitter.

NICK: So how much planning do you do in advance for your content, and how much of it is spontaneous? Because I know social media is by its nature is supposed to be spontaneous, and in the moment, but when you have so many channels to manage and you’re essentially doing it by yourself or with half of another person’s time, how much planning do you need to put into it?

KATHARINE: We put a lot of planning into it. Airtable is the main tool that we use for our editorial calendar, and it is basically our bible. If you’re not on our team and you look at it, I think it’s like walking into a garage where a serial killer is — it’s kind of terrifying. But it allows us to do what we do, really, because I don’t know how we would manage the breadth of content that we have across the museum.

The museum has over 500 employees. 150 of those staff members are active scientists doing research on all seven continents. So, not only are we talking about the museum’s exhibitions and events, and one-off initiatives, but we’re also talking about our scientists’ research, their published papers, we’re trying to highlight our collections, go behind the scenes, and of course, try to do the fun social media holidays and recurring events. So to keep all of that organized, and especially to keep that prioritized, and know when it’s most important to talk about what, we have to be planning certainly days, and oftentimes weeks and months in advance. So, yes.

NICK: It’s interesting because you just mentioned so many different sources of potential content, and one of the questions I was gonna ask you was, I speak with a lot of people from art museums and, you know, they’ve got their digitized collections, and so that is sort of automatically a content source that they could just post lovely images all the time every day. And I was gonna ask if not having an analog to that is some sort of disadvantage, but it sounds like there’s always plenty to talk about.

KATHARINE: Yeah, it’s funny, I feel like we have infinite content in a way. But just because you have infinite things to talk about, doesn’t always necessarily mean you always have a great thing to link to or a wonderful image to accompany it. So yeah, it can be a bit of a challenge, but we were lucky to have, in addition to our staff photographer, we have a lot of great photographers and storytellers on staff so that if someone’s going out into the field, they might be able to grab photos for us and write back. And we’re trying to do a lot more of that, to highlight that scientific research that our institution does.

But I would say, in general, we do have a photo archive and digitized collections, and probably about 20% of our content and our images comes from those sources. The sort of staff photography or behind-the-scenes photos that we post, about 20% comes from the staff, and then myself and my colleague Caitlin, we create about 50% of the content that goes up. And then about 10% of it, we’re sharing out user-generated content.


KATHARINE: So those are our four main sources.

NICK: So for that 20% that comes from museum staff, do you have pipelines? Are there certain people that sit in different departments that know to send stuff over to you? Or that you know to tap for content? And also, I meant to ask, what department do you and Caitlin sit in?

KATHARINE: We’re in the digital communications department. So Caitlin handles the blog and a lot of the content that goes on our website. I’m the social media manager, and then our other three colleagues work fully on the website and the development of the site. We’re the digital communications team and we sit under the marketing department.


KATHARINE: Yeah, to get back to your question about how we get the staff photography, we do have… I mean, I think so much of social media — doing it successfully — is building those relationships within your organization or within your institution and knowing who you can tap for great stories, great photography because so many people have great skills in those areas.

So, we definitely know that, for instance, when Lesley de Souza goes down to Colombia, that she’s going to be taking amazing pictures. Or, when Adrienne goes to Wyoming for Stones and Bones, we can count on some cool pictures there.

And then, in addition to that, we have our staff photographer who’s always taking really great pictures from exhibitions and around the building. We have a staff member in the division of insects who takes amazing pictures of the collection. So, yeah, I think if you can, and we sort of think of our staff as other followers that we might approach to say, “Hey, you took this really cool picture. Do you mind if we use it and share it?”

NICK: I wanted to take it back to something you were talking about in the beginning of our conversation, which was that the voice of your social media accounts is informed by the mission of the museum, and the voice of the museum. The Field Museum recently went through some rebranding, including a brand new website and a new logo. Would you say that that rebranding had any sort of impact on the way that you view the voice of the institution and the work that you do? Was there any sort of, like, “Oh, regrouping. Now we’re a little more focused in this direction”? Or, do you think that maybe the rebranding or the new website was almost solidifying or reinforcing what was already the brand of Field Museum?

KATHARINE: The museum rebranded in March, and I don’t think we were changing anything about who we are, we were just changing how we presented that and how we speak about ourselves. And so, similarly, it didn’t really change what we talk about on social media, it just really helped solidify that voice and be really consistent no matter what channel we’re talking about ourselves on. Whether, that’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and then even beyond, in our out of home advertising that our marketing department is doing, in our press releases that PR is sending out, in our newsletters. I don’t think the substance change, it was just a really great opportunity for us to hone that voice and present it consistently across everything from our social channels to our website to our membership communications, and just remind people that not only are we this 125-year-old museum with almost 40 million objects and specimens in its collection, but we are out there doing scientific research on all seven continents every day, making scientific discoveries and enabling solutions for a better future.

NICK: Would you say that you have something that you would point to as, this our social media strategy, and what is the relationship of that to the mission of the Field Museum?

KATHARINE: I think, to boil it down quite simply, our strategy in social media is to tell the stories of the museum and bring the museum to the people who aren’t there in person. And those people may end up becoming visitors, or they may never come, but regardless, we are bringing education of the natural world to them and I hope that that sort of influences, or inspires or sparks some curiosity in some way.

And I guess that ties back to the museum’s mission, which is, as mission statement go very abstract and broad, but it’s something about ‘fueling a journey to enable solutions for a future rich in nature and culture’. And so, I guess on social we’re really trying to highlight how rich our world is and everything we do is a great example of that. We want to help encourage attendance and drive revenue, and all of those things, but at the end of the day we feel like our efforts are a success if we can spark that curiosity and foster that love of the natural world.

NICK: Awesome. Social media has become a pretty normal channel to communicate through, but I think institutions still have trouble figuring out, ‘Well, what am I supposed to tweet?’ Or, ‘How do I get followers?’ Things like that. So, do you have any advice for someone who’s still trying to crack the social media nut for their museum?

KATHARINE: I think you’re right. You know, the landscape has changed so much. In some ways, I feel like social media is almost under scrutiny now. And it’s such a key piece of the communications and marketing strategy, so it can get really easy to get hung up on what’s right. And absolutely there are best practices, and there are things you should absolutely not do. You know, you cannot be hateful and illicit, but in general, I think it’s a little freeing if you can know that it’s not all going to be perfect. Especially know that you can not do it all — that is a hard thing for me to remember. It’s constantly changing and evolving and you’re not going to be able to be on all the platforms and use all the functionality, but if you can know that it really frees you up to have fun and be human.

You know, I think being a social media manager at a natural history museum is one of the coolest jobs a person can have. And if you can just sort of give yourself permission to show your institution and why you love it, and why it’s exciting to you, I think that goes a long way to creating a great presence online.

NICK: That was Katharine Urich from the Field Museum. I want to thank Katharine for talking with me and sharing such great insights. And I want to thank you for listening.

If you want to hear more interviews like this one, head over to Cuberis.com and click “What’s On”, where you’ll also find our ebook, “The Art of Storytelling.”

If you have a story that you’d like to share with other museum professionals, I’d love to have you on as a future guest. You can reach me at nick@cuberis.com.

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?