PRWeek UK 30 Under 30: Naomi Clarke, Academy of Medical Sciences

We hear from Naomi Clarke (28), senior communications officer, Academy of Medical Sciences.

Clarke has risen to the considerable recent challenges, enabling journalists to access the best health experts during the COVID-19 crisis. Her talent has led her to be seconded to the Science Media Centre as a frontline press officer in the team, leading daily responses to media requests for COVID-19 experts. Clarke has also also shown her aptitude for creative campaigns.

Meet the PRWeek 30 Under 30 2020

Judge's comment: "It's no mean feat to translate tricky scientific concepts into digestible content for mass audiences. It sounds like Naomi does this brilliantly."

How does working in PR differ from your expectations?

When I started at the Academy I didn’t expect to be discussing quotes with Nobel Prize winners, working with the chief medical officer and supporting up-and-coming scientists right away. It was daunting but exciting, and the team was fantastic at guiding me through. I also didn’t think I would work on campaigns as bold and creative as The Departure Lounge, a pop-up ‘shop’ we opened last year to encourage a national conversation about death and dying.

Describe your experience of working in PR during the COVID-19 crisis.

I’ve been supporting scientists to provide clear, evidence-based messages to the media from the moment the pandemic began, focusing on encouraging and coaching women, who are often underrepresented as expert voices. 

When it became clear the virus was here to stay, the Academy wanted to do more to help with the national media response. It supported me to work at the brilliant Science Media Centre (SMC), which is acting as a central hub for COVID-19 media enquiries, briefings and expert comments.

My time at the SMC on the COVID-19 media frontline was some of the most exciting and frenzied of my career to date. I would start early, rounding up the top COVID-19 issues to send to hundreds of experts, then spend the day fielding up to 30 media enquiries and collecting expert comments on new data. It was controlled chaos, but pretty exhilarating.

How (if at all) will the COVID-19 crisis change the PR industry?

I hope one positive that comes [out of it] is a broader conversation about how science works. Science is as much about what we don’t know as what we do. There will always be disagreements and debate within the field – that’s how it should be, especially in the early days of a new issue. But when science and politics collide those conflicts are played out on a national scale. We need trust in science and understanding of how it works to get us out of this. Post-COVID-19, we will need to work even harder at communicating risk, and maintaining trust in experts.

What one thing above all would you change about the PR industry?

I would like people to know what science communicators actually do. We’re not Malcolm Tucker, shouting and spinning stories. Our job is to identify accessible stories in scientific papers or policy reports and translate them into clear and honest press releases, blogs, and news items. We also support, train and coach a huge range of spokespeople to help tell the story. Hype is not in my job description, and I think very hard about how each message will impact the audience reached.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

If I’m not still in PR then I would love to explore science journalism, scouting out new experts and topics for documentaries.

How do you switch off from work?

It’s hard at the moment, but the Academy has a strong work-life balance ethos. When I’m done I tidy away my living room desk, switch off my notifications and do some yoga before joining my wonderful housemates in the kitchen – we’ve eaten well in lockdown! Recently I’ve started flower pressing, using them to make cards and framing my favourites. This and my weekly bread-making have helped ease the challenges of recent months.

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