Communicators as translators

I read an interesting article in the June issue of Wired talking about "Why Science Needs to Step Up Its PR Game." But how?

I read an interesting article in the June issue of Wired talking about “Why Science Needs to Step Up Its PR Game.” But how?

Imagine you are in a foreign country and you only know 10 words in the local language. A native comes up to you and passionately tries to communicate something, but you have no idea what because you don't understand them. Now imagine that same situation if you were traveling with someone that can act as a translator. Confusion can be transformed into clarity in a moment with the right intermediary. 

The translator role is what healthcare communicators perform, but instead of thinking of the public as the foreigners, start thinking of the scientists, researchers, and doctors that you work with as the tourist in a foreign land – and you are the translator.

First a disclaimer: I am married to a scientist, so I clearly have an affection for the way they think and their sometimes-idiosyncratic ways. But as I am often reminded during our “form over function” debates about some household issue, scientists just think differently than us mere mortals. Here are a few pointers for my fellow communicators that I have developed from my “field research” living and working with scientists and doctors for the past 20 years.

  • Do not ask them to think or write in “inverted pyramid” style. Let them tell you the whole story, built up point by point. That is how scientific papers are written. It is your job to flip the story on its head and find the nuggets that translate best to your audience.
  • Build trust. Remember, you are taking a tourist into a foreign land. There are many scientists that adapt very well and become “natives” very quickly, but communicators should look for and expect some apprehension.
  • Healthcare communicators must meet their scientific/medical coworkers halfway in understanding the research. Just as financial communicators can't be afraid of numbers, healthcare communicators must learn more about the science and medicine they are charged with communicating. 
  • Don't hype the story, but don't let it get away either. Working that balance is the art of a good healthcare communicator. As the Wired article stated, "‘Scientists hate the word spin. They get bent out of shape by the concept that they should frame their message,' says Jennifer Ouellette, director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Science Program that helps connect the entertainment industry with technical consultants."

“Quack science” makes news every day and with fewer medical/scientific reporters that understand the difference between a real medical breakthrough and reality TV, communicators must work even harder. The generally poor level of scientific education in the US also works against us.  But with topics ranging from genomics to the latest complex medications to breakthroughs in research for the world's most perplexing medical conditions, the world needs more healthcare communications expertise.

Mary Lynn Carver is SVP of PR for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. A 20-year PR veteran, she spent many years in global pharma communications. Her column looks at healthcare PR issues and topics related to the management of the communications function. She can be reached at mary.carver@stjude.org.

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