The science communication landscape is one of many things that have been fundamentally upended by today’s pandemic. The role of that amorphous thing called ‘science’ in our lives has never been more public, more discussed or more appreciated. This is an opportunity for those marketing complex products but it’s also exposing the enduring tensions in science-based communications.
In my early days working as a communicator with very senior scientists, I was frustrated because I couldn’t get a Yes or No answer to anything, and I wondered why every answer began with ‘The currently known data shows…’ or ‘At present…’. This is due to core principles of a good scientist’s training: any conclusions or highlights must be precisely described to reduce ambiguity, one must always work from data, remain objective, and accept that science is a living thing and changes all the time through discovery. So it needs to be presented this way but those wearing the ‘scientific expert’ hat need to find the balance between precision and brevity, positivity and spin. On the whole our country’s senior science and health officials are good examples of this.
The creative tension is due to the communications channel: you’re speaking about a complex topic, about precise benefits but reporters want simple yes-no, do-don’t messages accompanied by clear and pithy quotes, in brief explanations that work for an 11-year-old. This is because for most formal news channels the editorial guidelines are clear; breach them and your story won’t get posted. The tension is about us as the final recipient: as everyday news consumers we’ve become very lazy, expecting the news channels to do our thinking for us, sum things up simply and pre-analyse ‘’what does this mean for me?’’ with all the inherent risks and biases that brings. There are similar issues with other audiences: for example politicians and CEOs have even shorter attention spans than tweens, partly because they have to digest massive data daily on dozens of topics. Market analysts, on the other hand, usually have more time and do tend to know their science somewhat so they need more detailed headlines presented clearly and rapidly, with a lot of well-crafted backing data.
How should scientists with a relatively complex message manage this? Right now, there is a stronger public desire for science-based communication and stories connecting to Covid are more likely to get airtime – but when communicating about a complex product how do you manage the tension between accurate facts and the drive for fast news, between data, specific hypotheses and hyperbole? What should senior scientists do?
The very unfortunate Covid situation does at least help clarify this: as one senior scientist said recently on the BBC, it is not the job of science to recommend or decide, and that applies equally to speaking about Covid or about your technology at a funding round. It’s the job of science and researchers to accurately explain as simply as possible what a discovery or innovation is, what was learned, what it means for users, patients, science and medicine, and the next research steps. When presenting this it probably makes sense to be accompanied by others who can address wider questions.
But even as the ‘white coat’ presenting the data it pays to remember the age-old ‘news value’ test: a seasoned editor once told me news is all about how ‘my world has changed today’, so any outgoing communication does need to move on from core data to its physical impact for the final readership and target audience. Picture the end news consumer and focus data summaries quite strongly on the data’s meaning and importance to them, what’s changed and when – but stick to the facts and practice passing the ball smoothly to others so they can speak about future projects, the ‘One day we hope we will…’ scenarios.
In summary there may be opportunities to put science and your scientists out there in new ways, so we would advise Boards with a technical or science-based solution to make time to think about today’s emerging opportunities for your brand.