In defence of specialist PR for the UK Vaccine Taskforce

Much has been made in the media of the fact that Kate Bingham, head of the UK’s COVID-19 Vaccine Taskforce, allegedly spent £670,000 on hiring a team of ‘boutique PR consultants’ to oversee her media strategy.

Specialist subject areas require specialist PR people, argues Fiona Fox
Specialist subject areas require specialist PR people, argues Fiona Fox

Journalists reporting on the apparent scandal were at pains to point out the amount of money that has been spent, despite the fact that the Vaccine Taskforce had access to up to 100 government communications staff inside the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

I have no idea whether any rules were broken here, and these are legitimate journalistic questions. BEIS has insisted the proper processes were followed.

But I do know that hiring specialist science press officers from outside government is a smart idea and exactly what independent scientific advisory bodies should do.

The Vaccine Taskforce, launched in April, includes scientists from leading universities and research institutes as well as representatives from government and industry.

Few would dispute that it faces a huge challenge.

Almost everyone acknowledges that a successful COVID-19 vaccine is the only escape route from the nightmare scenario of multiple lockdowns.

But there are complex challenges ahead and we know that public trust is critical to vaccine take-up.

It’s hard to imagine a stronger case for getting the communications right.

In my experience, the best way to get measured and accurate information to the public on COVID-19 vaccines is to get the scientists developing and testing them in front of the science and health journalists who explain the issues to the wider public.

Over the years I have found that government press officers are great at doing communications for government, but considerably less great at doing science communication.

Their priority is to work with other government departments, including the Cabinet Office and Number 10, to ensure that all messaging is ‘aligned’ with the Government's policy and that there are no nasty surprises for their ministers or the Prime Minister.

Science communications experts have very different expertise and objectives, so it seems entirely sensible to me for the Vaccine Taskforce to want to draw on that pool of expertise.

The distinction between the role of government and science press officers has been acknowledged by the government in the past.

After the sacking of government drugs advisor Professor David Nutt, the then-minister of science, Lord Drayson, and chief scientific adviser, John Beddington, developed guidance for independent science experts brought in to advise government, enshrining the principle that independent experts should be free to use their own press officers.

It is to the credit of BEIS and ministers that they are adhering to these important principles, and no reflection on the quality of their own comms officers. It is perhaps ironic that journalists, not known for their love of government press officers, don’t seem to have considered that having a separate media team may also be beneficial to them.

I have been arguing for years that the communication of science is at its best when led by scientists, science press officers and science journalists, and kept at arm’s length from government departments.

The communication of COVID-19 vaccines surely calls for the best we have.

Fiona Fox is chief executive of the Science Media Centre

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