COVID-19: Providing journalists and policy-makers with accurate science has never been more important

One of the many speaking engagements cancelled because of the COVID-19 crisis was an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the influential House of Lords report on Science and Society that recommended the establishment of the Science Media Centre (SMC).

Meeting the needs of the media, public and policy makers during the COVID-19 crisis is vital, argues Fiona Fox
Meeting the needs of the media, public and policy makers during the COVID-19 crisis is vital, argues Fiona Fox

The Lords saw the Centre as a necessary response to the failure of the scientific community to engage effectively with media frenzies over BSE, GM and MMR.

After hearing evidence from journalists about how much easier it was to reach NGOs and single-issue protest groups than scientists, the Lords concluded that what science needed was an outfit that would champion a new, proactive, rapid-response unit for science.

Twenty years on, the arrival of COVID-19 is the best demonstration yet of the value of the SMC.

From the very early reports of a new mystery virus emerging in China, we swung into action.

Using our database of 2,500 top-quality scientists, we found a range of experts in infectious diseases, global health, modelling and more, willing to help answer journalists’ questions.

As is standard in a breaking news story, we ask scientists to provide short written comments on all the significant developments, as well as answering specific enquiries about multiple aspects of the disease.

As the weeks passed the trickle of media questions and small group of scientists has grown into a deluge.

Since mid-January, the SMC has issued almost 200 separate ‘Rapid-Reactions’, run five major press conferences where science and health reporters could question the UK’s top experts on the crisis, and set up too many interviews to count.

The science and health news journalists using the SMC in past weeks have been remarkably generous and grateful for our 24/7 operation on COVID-19.

But the Centre is not just an efficient service for journalists.

Our mission is to make it easier for the public and policy-makers to access measured, evidence-based, accurate information during times of crisis.

By ensuring that we recruit the very best scientists to our database, as well as making ourselves indispensable to journalists, we can ensure that the UK media is packed full of good-quality science and scientists.

The key to the SMC’s success is a rather old-fashioned focus on meeting the needs of the news media and ensuring that our small team of five press officers is always available when a story breaks.

The break with ‘media first’ in scientific comms

While we have worked with many brilliant science press officers during this crisis, we have also seen at first hand the impact of changes we have observed in many science comms teams in recent years, who have moved away from a ‘media-first’ approach toward a focus on internal communications, social media, content creation and corporate comms.

Not surprisingly, this has left some communications teams ill-equipped to respond to the huge demands of a news story like COVID-19.

One NHS Trust press office responded to my anguished plea to send them some of the more clinical media bids by saying that they were focusing on their core priorities of reputation management and keeping core web and social-media channels going.

They were not alone in not being able to help journalists

I hope when all this is over and the ‘reckoning’ begins, we in PR circles will also reflect on whether we were well set up to deal with a news story of this magnitude.

Journalists using our scientists in recent weeks report an exponential rise in readers on this subject, with one BBC journalist saying his COVID-19 article got 50 million hits.

What a missed opportunity for those PR departments and comms teams who no longer have staff dedicated to helping journalists.

Fiona Fox is chief executive of charitable organisation the Science Media Centre

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