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Science Comms – a how-to guide for times like these

09 November, 2020

One odd silver lining these days is that the amorphous topic of ‘science’ and its value in our lives is much more discussed!

Science Comms – a how-to guide for times like these

We are finding mainstream channels somewhat more prepared to discuss topics previously deemed too complex, especially if the story includes an innovation, job creation or a new treatment. This is good news for anyone with a science-based innovation and could mean greater and more widespread media coverage – but communicating science is complex and to retain credibility we must avoid hyperbole, along with any appearance of exploiting the situation.

So – if you sell a health or science-based solution how can you pick your way through this minefield and still seize emerging opportunities? As a basic guide to media or analyst engagement right now I would recommend:

  • If you have a product or project that legitimately connects to the ongoing Covid battle, or grew out of it, use that. If it’s tangential or you’re hard-pressed to make the connection, don’t overstate and steer well away.
  • Always step into your audience’s shoes: be very clear how your offering affects the things they most care about (another classic tip for mainstream news is thinking about the three H’s: the audience’s health, heartstrings or hip pocket – which explains why Covid is dominating so much of our news space) but think about the channel you’re using to reach them: an analyst or specialist audience will, as you know, expect more complete and specific answers than BBC Look East.
  • If you are the ‘white coat’, there to present the science, then retaining your credibility with scientific peers (some of whom are looking to find inaccuracies, for example if they are employed by the competition) is vital so stick to objective presentation of facts: ‘56% in 90 days’ not ‘over 50% in just three months’, specific next steps and achievable timeframes.
  • Use the pub test: be specific with facts but boost engagement with verbal ‘colour and light’ using word pictures or related examples known to your audience, as you would with a relative you’re speaking to in a pub. With practice you will safely delineate between presenting the data in your new findings and more general comments describing the wider context, the possible uses or the wider research field.
  • Make sure you’re supported in your communication by those with financial or wider-managerial responsibility: practice passing on questions to them, for example to make predictions about impact on the wider market, financials or competing products. If you are a senior scientist who also has wider Board responsibilities, then make it clear which of your hats you’re wearing when you address a question.
  • Drafting or commissioning writing can be an excellent platform too: Harvard HIV scientist and communications wizard William A Haseltine recently offered a masterclass of long-form writing about science, HIV and Covid in a way that seems precise, caring and educational.

In essence, this can be a very good time to sell a slightly more complex solution, especially one that is health-related but as one senior scientist said recently on the BBC, it is not the job of science to recommend or decide, simply to present data well… and that applies equally to speaking about Covid or about your technology at a funding round.

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