The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated both the need for timely public communications from academics as well as high public interest in expert comments.
The print, radio and TV media required continuous and urgent input from academics (among other stakeholders) who could provide pragmatic and informed comment on the evolving public health emergency.
The UK-based Science Media Centre (SMC) was set up in 2002 to act as a bridge between journalists and academics, predominantly on the back of scientific scandals that were the result of poor journalism and lack of engagement from the scientific community.
The misinformation of Andrew Wakefield and the false “MMR vaccine causes autism” claims is one example from that time.
The pandemic led the SMC to compile a 2022 report, describing the changing role of university press and media teams and providing recommendations for addressing staff and knowledge gaps.
The headline conclusion was that the role of science press officers has changed. It is more professional, with a broader remit and responsibilities, and it requires a much wider skill set.
The report also concluded that often university researchers do not have the training or confidence to carry out media engagement, and that universities should prioritise research communications.
A new role for media teams
In essence, a university communications team needs support and content from its academics, and vice versa. Topics of public interest – whether that be pandemics, dinosaurs, the kings and queens of England or nuclear physics – need informed comment and expert voices.
But for press officers or comms teams, it can feel like crossing the divide to fully engage with academics. After all, what’s in it for the researcher to put their head above the parapet and speak to the media or the general public? It can be a hard sell.
My background is in infectious disease epidemiology – when the pandemic came along, so did the journalists, to my inbox.
I did end up being in the glare of the local, national and international media. I’ve been interviewed on BBC Breakfast, CNN and Al Jazeera, and appeared on the TV in countries such as South Korea, Ghana and Sri Lanka. The overall TV audience will total hundreds of millions of people. Around 2.6m people have read my articles in The Conversation (a far greater number than will ever read my journal papers).
Overall, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. The media were very professional with their experts and are skilled at their jobs – having dealt with hundreds of journalists, I could count the number of bad ones on the fingers of one hand.
It was this media engagement that triggered a new job role within the University of Southampton. I now have a one-day-a-week post, as advocacy manager. The aim is for me to act as the bridge between comms staff and academics.
This means I need to reflect the needs of the communications units, including university strategy, to my fellow academics. I also bring both the concerns and enthusiasm from the academic side of the fence over to the communications directorate.
There are many reasons why an academic may not do public or media engagement. That can include simply not knowing how to take the first step, a lack of confidence that they are the right person, perception that the public would not be interested in their work, or concerns about abuse on social media.
We have found that even if a comms person says: “It’s fine, honest”, there may be little engagement. If a fellow academic also reinforces the messaging and says: “It’s fine. Here’s the pros and cons from my experience”, that can be a little more convincing.
A media-ready skill set
Though my advocacy manager role, we have been carrying out a series of training sessions with the University of Southampton academics, along with informal one-to-one sessions.
This has included tips and tricks for engaging with the media, highlighting the support services available, answering the “how to” questions, and modelling successful approaches to writing in the public domain for places such as The Conversation or Campus (or even Wonkhe!)
For example, we carried out a “writers retreat” training – typically these have been used for academics to shut off their emails for a day and write a journal paper or grant application.
Here, our approach was to systematically take people through the pitching and writing of an article for The Conversation, to develop their lay summary writing skills. The media team will receive requests from journalists. and sometimes search our user profiles to find the right expert.
Thus, we’ve highlighted the importance of an updated institutional profile. We’ve also encouraged our staff to sign up to the Science Media Centre mailing lists, under their area of expertise.
I’ve been using my experience to highlight the positives and the occasional negatives of doing media work. One of my research areas is anti-vaccine activism and countering the misinformation from those communities.
Therefore, for me, the negatives would typically be the antivax or Covid conspiracy theory crowd getting in touch. That inevitably results in some “fun” emails in my inbox, and it is important to highlight that can happen. Where there is public interest, there is public criticism.
However, media engagement has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me. You do get the satisfaction of a job well done in providing timely expert comment. Bonus reasons include an increased public profile, a university that is pleased to have you in the public eye, admiring glances from friends or relatives, and also (importantly) increased impact and outputs from your research.
Public communications, impact and the REF
Ah yes, that dirty word, “impact”. The draft guidance is now out for the next UK Research Excellent Framework (REF) review. For those who don’t know, this is how universities are assessed, and the results influence aspects such as levels of government funding, attractiveness to students and funders, and university rankings.
It seems as though the next REF will decrease the previous focus on journal papers and citations, with new references to “the broader contributions to research and research processes”, and a suggested change from measures of “impact” to “engagement and impact”.
The fine detail will follow in due course, but it seems clear the next REF is flagging an intention to assess how institutions and researchers go beyond their latest scientific manuscript, to showcase what else we do.
Therefore, we return to the SMC’s point around prioritising public communications, and the need for universities to evolve their thinking to create and harness enthusiasm from their staff. We feel that, with an academic like myself “bridging the gap”, that can result in improved and sustained enthusiasm from like-minded colleagues across the university.