Earlier this year, it was reported that less than half of the general public believed that universities had been important in helping the world through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Most of those to whom I mentioned this finding were bemused, even shocked. After all, the UK’s research universities had been in the media almost every day for two years as the public tracked with anticipation the development of vaccines, results from big drug trials and Covid prevalence studies, plus all the other incredible science to better understand the virus.
I was less surprised. We at the Science Media Centre (SMC) had noticed during the pandemic that some universities that were extremely proactive in research communications were missing in action. Many of those with whom we had worked closely during past health crises were struggling to prioritise the media’s demand for science.
As the pandemic has receded, I have found some time to chat to senior university comms people about what life was like during these past two years. What I heard sounded familiar – university comms teams felt under huge pressure, with many complaining that they had been pulled in multiple directions. One senior comms person who started at a university during the pandemic recalled that 60 per cent to 70 per cent of his time was spent responding to a wide variety of non-pandemic unplanned events. Science press officers reported being pulled off Covid to support colleagues negotiating internal university crises, including strikes, problems with online learning and student demands for action on Black Lives Matter and Reclaim These Streets.
In my new book charting 20 years at the helm of the SMC, I have attempted to characterise some of the changes I have seen in university communications and how they may impact the effectiveness of science communication.
Much has been written about how the introduction of £9,000-plus annual tuition fees in 2012 turned universities into businesses, with students as their customers. One element that has elicited little comment is how these changes have altered communications departments. Many research media teams are now only a tiny part of larger comms teams dedicated to marketing, fundraising, student liaison and internal comms; some universities have four or five people in research comms, compared with 100-plus in wider communication efforts.
Many senior comms managers had come up though the traditional research comms route when I started the SMC in 2002, but a shift happened about a decade ago when senior science press officers perceived a new glass ceiling: promotions and top jobs went to those with marketing or political backgrounds, rather than those skilled in media management. One newly appointed director of comms told me that she had been headhunted from government for her “change management” skills, suggesting that this pathway would become more common.
Of course, our media landscape has also changed beyond recognition from the early 2000s, when regional newspapers were thriving, national papers sold in their millions each day and there were few radio or TV channels to pitch to. University press officers who wanted the public and policymakers to know about their science now have hundreds of channels and platforms, but often opt to release information on social media outlets and their own websites. The days of the “media first” approach, where the main activity was writing press releases for the BBC and the Daily Mirror, seem a long time ago; these days, science press officers are adept at creating their own content for multiple platforms, which requires staff whose skills revolve around digital comms and social media engagement.
That shift of emphasis has succeeded in some respects, but it also made it harder for some research press officers to engage with the traditional news media when the pandemic arrived. Those media teams that retained and protected their specialist research officers were better placed to take advantage of an era that saw the public returning to mainstream news media as a more trusted source of news. Many news organisations reported huge uplifts in readers, with some health journalists telling me about millions of hits on science explainers they had written. The media appetite for science was insatiable during this emergency, providing a remarkable opportunity for our universities to remind the public of how the research they do can and does save lives and change the world.
At an event at the University of Oxford to mark the first anniversary of the Oxford vaccine, its vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, said Covid had shown the public that universities are not only places where students learn but where life-saving vaccines are developed and therapeutic drugs tested. Its prominent media profile thanks to these scientific achievements would help to attract the brightest students and best researchers, Richardson said.
Her comments are a reminder that the science media relations done in universities should not be seen as the poor relation to marketing communications and reputation comms but rather as an essential part of both.
The pandemic was a powerful reminder that, contrary to Michael Gove’s belief, the public cannot get enough of experts. University scientists helped get the country out of this nightmare, and their patient explanations of the science saved lives. Carving out space for this proactive science communication may not always be a priority for institutions, but when this expertise is lost, it can be hard to replace when it is most needed.
Fiona Fox is chief executive of the Science Media Centre. Her new book, Beyond the Hype: The Inside Story of Science’s Biggest Media Controversies, is published on 7 April.