Jenna Jambeck: Communicating clearly in the spotlight

“I’m so grateful for the professionalism, competence, and knowledge of COMPASS. I felt like I had someone I could trust on my side.” - Jenna Jambeck, University of Georgia

Jenna Jambeck was exhausted, but happy. She had spent four days talking with reporters from around the world. Now the embargo on her latest research was lifted, and the headlines were hitting: New study shows plastic in oceans is on the rise … World’s oceans clogged by millions of tons of plastic trash … 8 million tons of plastic clutter our seas.

These and other articles appeared in nearly 70 outlets in early 2015, from NBC to the BBC, from The Huffington Post to the South China Morning Post. Even The Onion took a characteristically wry crack at the topic (Officials urge Americans to sort plastics, glass into separate oceans). Because Jenna and her coauthors had worked with COMPASS to support their outreach when their research was published in Science, they were prepared to handle the media onslaught.

“I think we knew that this was going to make somewhat of a splash, but we didn’t know how big,” Jenna reflected later. “Then our first interview was for BBC radio—we hadn’t thought it was going to get that kind of international attention.”

A few months earlier, Jenna hadn’t even been sure she needed communications coaching. She had already had some through her employer, the University of Georgia, and she was an intelligent, articulate person. But working with COMPASS, she says, taught her several valuable things, including the importance of creating a clear message and being highly selective about how she shared the data. Initially, the environmental engineering professor’s talking points included 26 numbers. We helped her whittle them down to one key number that was easy for reporters and their readers to visualize: 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans each year, the equivalent of five full plastic grocery bags for every foot of coastline in the world. We also helped Jenna’s team fine-tune the press release and infographic given to reporters during the embargo. The resulting headlines, many of which cited the 8 million number, demonstrate just how effectively Jenna represented her work.

“COMPASS got to know me and my values,” she says. “They gave helpful, objective advice so I came to the answer myself—but they understood where my [boundaries] were.”

The focus on this issue was especially significant given that marine debris is a priority for the State Department, the Senate Oceans Caucus, and other federal authorities. As a result of the high-profile press coverage, Jenna was invited to speak at two events on Capitol Hill: an Innovation Showcase spotlighting technical solutions to land-based marine debris and a Global Ocean Commission event on plastic and the marine environment. To make the most of Jenna’s trip, COMPASS helped her better understand the policy contexts related to the issue of marine debris and coached her on effectively engaging with policymakers. We also set up meetings with the offices of key policymakers, after which at least one office expressed interest in sponsoring a briefing on the issue. “I find it personally rewarding that the issue might be addressed at the global and local scale because the policymakers are talking about it,” Jenna says. “And if this science helps with that, then I am really happy about it.”

Following Jenna’s busy press tour and her time in D.C.—a series of events she refers to as “surreal”— we continued to assist her as she sifted through numerous invitations and event requests. While making time to focus on press and policy opportunities meant she had to delay some of her more traditional pursuits, the experience opened new doors—and collaborating with us gave her the skills to walk through those doors confidently. “I’m so grateful for the professionalism, competence, and knowledge of COMPASS,” Jenna says. “I felt like I had someone I could trust on my side.”

Photo of Jenna Jambeck by Andrew Davis Tucker at University of Georgia