Michael Gove’s infamous “we have had enough of experts” remark back in 2016 now rings very hollow.
There is great reassurance in seeing ministers flanked by experts at the daily press briefings as the government tries to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic is creating a huge appetite for good scientific evidence and expertise.
Over the past few weeks, we have seen a range of researchers interviewed by the media, and many more are sharing their expertise with colleagues, family and friends. So what do we know about engaging with the public in a time of crisis? What advice should we offer researchers?
Think about your audience
A public health crisis on this scale has not been seen in our lifetimes, therefore many people are really frightened and anxious and this fear and worry inevitably affect how they “hear” what you are saying. Tuning into what those worries are and the questions people want answers to is a good place to start. Really listening to conversations – amongst friends, on Twitter, circulating on social media, and reflecting on how people are making sense of things will help you to work out how best to contribute.
Keep it simple
The situation is hugely complex with many unknowns and variables. The government has been careful to share the best scientific advice in bite-sized chunks, starting with the basics like hand hygiene (that feels like a long time ago now). In a situation like this it is important to make the knowledge actionable, enabling people to gain insights into what is happening, and take positive action to address the challenge.
Keep informed about the latest developments – the World Health Organisation (WHO) is a fantastic resource with the latest research logged here and regularly updated myth busters. UKRI’s Coronavirus: the science explained website lays out the evidence and facts about the virus and its control. Assume people are intelligent, but don’t assume they know the basics.
Choose your words carefully
The same words can mean different things to different people. Particularly high risk are words or phrases with technical meanings which people interpret using more colloquial frames of reference. Take the early debate over the extent to which the virus is “airborne” or not. As this article shows, scientists don’t agree what airborne actually means – so there is a real risk of misunderstanding. We need to think carefully about every word we use.
This extends to how we talk about the people involved too. The WHO provides excellent advice about how to avoid inadvertently stigmatising people who are being treated for Covid-19 by ill-chosen language (for instance talking about “cases” or “victims”).
Think about behaviour, not just facts
Whilst it can be tempting to believe that all people need is to be told the facts, and behaviour will follow, research and experience tells us that things are much more complicated than that. The so-called deficit model, where people are considered as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge just doesn’t work.
If you want to change people’s behaviours you need to consider their emotional engagement with the topic in question, recognise that they have expertise and knowledge that informs their decision making which you are not privy to, and that they are strongly influenced by others. Ensure you are sharing simple, achievable actions to make it easy to get involved. Think about their peer networks, and the key influencers that they listen to, and ensure that you don’t assume what works for you works for anyone else.
Think of knowledge as something you create with people, rather than something you transmit
Educational theory can help you develop your communication. A really powerful idea is instructional scaffolding. Developed by Jerome Bruner in the late 1950s, it describes how experts can assist “apprentices” or novices by matching the level of support they offer to suit the cognitive potential of the learner. As the learner grasps the new knowledge, and internalises it, the scaffold falls away.
An example of a scaffold that has proved really powerful in engaging people with the science arose from the modelling contributed to by the team at Imperial College – leading to the worldwide focus on “flattening the curve”. The model vividly dramatised the underpinning dynamics of the public health catastrophe we were facing, with the speed of spread mapped against the capacity of health services. The visual and conceptual logic was obvious – and the ‘call to action’ incontrovertible.
Scaffolds like this make sense intellectually, can be easily visualised, verbalised and shared, and translate into collective action.
Solidarity and global cooperation are needed to prevent further transmission and alleviate the concerns of communities. We need to recognise our role as scientists and as citizens, and show humanity and humility in our communications, perhaps by sharing sympathetic narratives, or stories that humanise the experiences of individuals or groups affected by Covid-19. And we need to communicate our support and encouragement for those who are on the frontlines of response to this outbreak (health care workers, volunteers, and community leaders)
Remember that every conversation counts. Some experts are commanding huge audiences through the media. Others are working much more locally, perhaps supporting local teachers with guidance on how to talk to their students about the virus. Don’t underestimate the value of those smaller, day-to-day conversations with family, friends and social networks.
Don’t over promise
While the temptation is to suggest science can provide the answers, there is a real risk of over-promising, and of losing public trust. A core principle of science is uncertainty. It is important to acknowledge how much is still unknowable about the pandemic, and that the science itself will change and perhaps lead to different answers as the situation develops. We need to talk about the process of science, to emphasise that we don’t have all the answers, but are cooperating globally to develop our understanding, on a day by day basis.
Listen as hard as you can
Above all, we need to listen. Seek advice on how to communicate – from colleagues, public engagement professionals, from agencies like the WHO and the Science Media Centre. Resist the temptation to always slip into “expert” mode and to offer answers and solutions. As important is to tune into how people are making sense of the pandemic and of the multiple sources of information around them. The better we understand this, the better we will be able to explain, and build scaffolds that are meaningful and practical.
Given our current pandemic, experts are more needed than ever before. But expert knowledge is not enough on its own. Our skills in engagement play a crucial role in ensuring our contribution is as meaningful, trustworthy and ethical as possible – and that we are maximising the value of research during an unprecedented collective crisis.