Amazing From Afar: Q&A with Dr. Katie Abrams, Associate Professor, Department of Journalism and Media Communication

Dr. Katie Abrams is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University. Dr. Abrams’ previous work for the National Park Service on keeping safe distance from wildlife led to her involvement with the Amazing from Afar project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

What is Amazing from Afar and how did it get started?

This project focused on developing a social marketing approach to encourage tourists to follow the guidelines and laws in place in Hawai’i for different distances that people need to keep from protected marine species. When people keep these distances from sea turtles, monk seals, spinner dolphins and humpback whales, there’s a less chance they’ll be disturbed or harmed, and that’s important for the ocean ecosystem. This is the second part of a project that started in 2019 funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA is very interested in understanding how they can use better communication science and social marketing techniques in particular to shape and change people’s behavior around natural resources. 

The first time around we only focused on sea turtles, and the goal this time was to see how we need to change the social marketing approach to encompass all the protected species and hopefully still encourage people to keep those distances. I categorize it as an engaged scholarship project because what we learn not only contributes to theory but also adapts theoretical ideas to a real-world problem with real-world influencers you can’t replicate in a lab-like study. 

Amazing From Afar signage (AFA)

Where are these campaigns taking place?

We launched and tested these campaigns on the North Shore of Oahu in 2020 and nearly island-wide on the Island of Hawai’i or Big Island in 2021. But just like with the National Park Service safe wildlife distance project, we’re making the materials and lessons learned available for any entity to adapt to wherever these species roam. 

What is social marketing and how was it used for this project? 

With any kind of communication, it’s all about knowing your audience, knowing their psychology, and understanding what might shape their behavior. So, we took kind of a traditional approach to evaluating our audiences by using existing literature to understand what might motivate them to get close to wildlife. We conducted in-depth interviews with various people who manage or see interactions between tourists and sea turtles, or tourists and dolphins. 

From the secondary research, and then primary research– those in-depth interviews that we conducted– we put together a campaign in which we tried to highlight and make the desired behavior of keeping these distances from protected wildlife seem in alignment with what they want to get out of the experience. We use social norm messages, dynamic norm messages, which describe how people are changing and following these viewing distances. Research shows us that we are social beings heavily influenced by what we’re told others are doing. We also try to use visuals to help aid people in making judgments of what that appropriate distance would look like, which helps make the desired behavior easier. We also have a pledge that people can sign to demonstrate their commitment. Research suggests when we commit to doing something, we’re more likely to follow through.

Because we also know tourists want a great photo from their wildlife encounter, we included components to demonstrate how to get good or even better photos from these distances. So, we promoted a replacement behavior for the undesired behavior of laying down next to a sea turtle and taking a selfie. Instead, we suggested people take forced perspective photos. Most people are familiar with forced perspective photos of people pretending like they’re holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. So it’s similar, where we suggest people make symbolic gestures showing how much they love and want to protect these wildlife. For example, you use your hands to make a heart around the turtle from a distance, you love the turtle, that’s why you’re staying this far away. You’re doing a honu hold (honu is the Hawaiian term for great sea turtle). So you’re holding it, you’re taking care of it– you’re a honu protector. What’s even better is taking these forced perspective photos actually requires people to be these distances away from the wildlife.

For the dolphin, it’s a little more challenging. We actually developed this little Polaroid frame that had a cutout in the middle so people could hold up the Polaroid and take a photo through it. Even if they didn’t do that, it was giving them sort of like a suggested behavior. If you can fit the dolphin inside the frame, you’re probably far enough away. So it was supposed to be a replacement behavior, even if they didn’t use it that way. It was a reminder that you can still get amazing photos from afar. We also hoped to increase the frequency of people sharing great photos from these distances with friends, family, and on social media to inspire others to do the same. That idea ties back into the social norms I talked about earlier.

What makes this study unique?

One of the techniques that was exciting to try out was flying drones over the ocean and taking video recordings and stills of the interactions between spinner dolphins and people. Drones are a newer tool that marine biologists are already using, but it’s been more of a limited tool for social scientists. It’s pretty unique that our study used drones as our data collection tool for improved accuracy in observations of people’s behavior.

What were the results of the campaigns; did you find differences between the first campaign and this one? 

In 2020, when we were just testing the approach on one beach in Oahu that had basking sea turtles, we do have results. We did a preliminary analysis of the data we collected when we observed sea turtles– people’s interactions around sea turtles. In general, we found a positive impact of the social marketing-based approach on people’s compliance with the 10-foot guidance for basking sea turtles. Because that study was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, we collected more data in 2021 on the Big Island and are seeing similar results in our early analysis.

The 2021 one is so fresh– we don’t know the full story of our results yet. We just finished up data collection in December. It’s so challenging to analyze that data because of how challenging it was to collect it inconspicuously– spinner dolphins and people were constantly moving in the water. We’re taking our time to ensure we analyze those data as accurately as possible.

After data is collected, where is it being shared? 

We actually just had an abstract accepted to a marine biology conference, in fact. One of the cool things about using drones was it led to a collaboration with Robin Baird, a world-renowned marine biologist for offshore species in the Hawaiian islands. I’ve also shared the 2020 sea turtle study at a regional conference for scholars in science communication and a national conference for practitioners and scholars in conservation marketing. My plans are to get the research into journals for publication, of course, but I also plan to do additional outreach with nonprofits, community leaders, and representatives from NOAA and other agencies to begin to build their understanding and use of social marketing to manage this issue and others like it.

It is important to recognize that Amazing from Afar was a collaborative effort between faculty and students in the CSU Center for Science Communication with students from the University of Hawai’i, Hilo, Jennifer Sims from Hawai’i Community College, Dr. Robin Baird from Cascadia Research Collective, and local community members and tourism business representatives. For more info, see the campaign’s website at amazingfromafar.org