Telling tales about test tubes

Public health depends on effective medical communications.  Here’s how PR professionals can help scientists experiment with new techniques to connect with their audience.

About the author

Kate Forbes prepared this article for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

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Bing Image Creator

From snake oil to vaccine sceptics, medical misinformation and disinformation are as eternal a problem as the common cold.  However, the last two decades have seen an explosion in social media echo chambers of the ill-intentioned or poorly informed, and the increasingly blurred lines between journalism and science have allowed the problem to escalate.

Furthermore, medical research is increasingly politicised, making the public wary of information distorted to justify policy.

Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre, which has done much to champion good practice in science communication, believes that the public needs scientists to use their voices to help them access accurate information.  Although many institutions media train senior scientists, the focus is on interview skills rather than creating effective communications strategies, and herein lies the problem.

For those working in research, there is a duty to counter misinformation.

Whilst laboratory science may seem an esoteric field, medical research communications are vital to the public in enabling them to make informed healthcare decisions.  For those working in research, there is a further duty to counter misinformation: the responsibility we owe to funders, including charities and the tax-payer.  So, how can we ensure that we serve the public effectively?

PR professionals, working in close collaboration with scientists, are essential in finding effective ways of navigating the difficulties of conveying complex content to a lay audience in a rapidly-evolving media landscape.

In medical research our audience is as diverse as the population itself, and some groups and individuals will always be less likely to engage with, or be convinced of, scientific evidence.  This is a complex issue, with factors such as individual psychology, and social circumstances extremely difficult for PR professionals to counter.  However, there is some reassurance in a recent Oxford University report, which showed that trust in scientists remains generally high.  Furthermore, it demonstrated that the public has an appetite for science information, but that those who are least accepting of it tend to have lower textbook knowledge.

Beyond the deficit model

It can therefore be tempting to draw the conclusion that giving the public more information will mean they are better informed and able to navigate their way past misinformation.  With limited understanding of communications models in the research community, this has been the go-to method, strengthened by many scientists’ view that the public is an homogenous mass who don’t “get” science simply because they are uninformed.

However, as we know, the deficit model has been proven as largely ineffective, and research therefore needs a new paradigm for interacting with the public.  Recent interpretation of communications theory,  proposing that we create meaning in an omnidirectional process based on variables such as our relationships with each other, allows science communicators to consider alternative strategies to basic information transmission, with a new focus on the vehicle for facts, as well as the content itself, with vehicle meaning both communicative form and channel. 

“Every piece of content…should be the start of a journey… and should somehow impart wonder.”
Dan Noyes, Joint Head of Strategy and Communications, the European Head of Molecular Biology Laboratory

Stories are one of the most compelling forms from which we construct meaning, and for this reason we know are well-established as a powerful PR tool.  We can compose infinite narratives to convey a story, and when well-constructed they are demonstrably more appealing and memorable, particularly to the many who avoid data-based texts.  Adam Kay’s memoir This is Going to Hurt, with all its drama and emotion, has proven more effective at conveying issues within the NHS to the general public than any report detailing statistics and frameworks.

There’s another good reason to construct narratives around medical research: it’s inevitably a lengthy, unpredictable, and non-linear process, and only a small percentage of the population is likely to access multiple publications and make connections between them over time.  However, a narrative structure can give research a meaningful, logical shape.  This technique is already being used successfully in related industries: the Wellcome Trust, for example, uses narrative podcasts to illustrate high-tech research.

Narratives also have more scope than data to entertain, making them more likely to hold readers’ attention.  In fact, a well-written research narrative can be exciting.  Using PR theorist Michael Kent’s description of 20 master plots, medical research has all the elements of a quest: a search for a solution to an evil, with the researchers as the noble team of heroes using their wits to outsmart the enemy.

‘Science … is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth’ Jules Verne

A key element of any quest is overcoming obstacles; this creates dramatic tension, and in conquering the heroes become stronger and worthier.  This means that science communicators are not only able, but should include the inevitable disappointments and dead-ends of research once the goal is reached.  Just like any brand, a lab needs to demonstrate transparency to establish consumer trust, vital in combating misinformation.

In asking the public to engage with our quest, we are drawing upon shared emotions.  Although scientists are wary of emotion by training, thinkers from Aristotle to Damasio have discussed how, alongside reason, we need emotion to effectively construct messages and make decisions.  Research projects already use patient stories to increase emotional connection and empathy with project goals, and they can invoke some of the same emotions to persuade their audience of the value of the research itself: fear of the condition or illness and disappointment with setbacks can be balanced by optimism of the quest’s objective being reached.

Alongside structure and emotion, any good story needs characters to identify with.  To connect with their audience, researchers need to be perceived as caring and socially attractive in addition to knowledgeable, and this can be supported in parallel to the main research story with scientists’ personal communications.  Professor David Liu of Harvard University, described by the Sunday Times as the closest thing the world of chemistry has to a rock star, features in numerous mainstream science articles.  He consolidates his personable image by featuring emotion-invoking content on X, such as his interview with Progeria patient and fellow researcher Sammy Basso.  The social value of his work is highlighted, and his accessibility – he posts about his cats and love of bonsais – also helps to increase trust.

Conveying stories across channels

So, there is a compelling form to communicate our science, but the choice of channel has seemed problematic.  An omnidirectional view of communication steers us towards websites and social media, with their networks allowing for increased meaning-making.  Self-maintained platforms also allow science communicators to bypass the often-low standards and growing political agenda of traditional media, and offer opportunities for direct engagement with the public.  Furthermore, Millennials and Gen Zers, the increasingly dominant generations in terms of numbers and influence, are more likely to access information on social platforms.

Scientists have been using social media as a collaboration tool for some time, but have been less enthusiastic about leveraging its reach with the public.  Coming from a discipline which has been dubbed “undemocratic”, they fear that the business of social media is not quality of information, and the distinction between expert and non-expert increasingly porous online.  However, scientists from established institutions were found to be one of the more trusted sources of information during the pandemic, as well as one of the most trusted professions of 2022, so should use their platform to engage.

“I was sold on the quality and rigor of some of the educational information people are putting out on social media…. It’s incredible medical education” Professor Esther Choo, Science Communicator, Oregon Health & Science University

A further concern is the character limits of some platforms, which many researchers believe are poorly equipped to convey the complexity and step-by-step nature of science stories.  However, content marketing can lend science communicators useful techniques to manage this: just like any consumer, a member of the public seeking information about a medical treatment embarks on a user journey, and as such will need different types of content at different stages, lending themselves to different platforms.

Content on short-form social media platforms such as X is easily shareable, and has a greater reach than websites or traditional media, so is best used to create awareness.  It doesn’t, however, mean that the narrative strategy needs to be abandoned.  Think of how effective haikus are, despite their brevity.  Micronarratives, giving the key elements of the quest such as the problem to be solved, and initial strategy, are highly effective, in the same way that creating compelling leads on Facebook and LinkedIn is essential to pull readers into continuing to read.

Readers who want more information can then be guided towards platforms with greater potential for sharing complex narratives, such as YouTube or a self-maintained website.  A number of high-profile scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, have been doing this for some time.  His X account features short video clips of programmes and interviews, or sound bites of full articles.  These are often thought-provoking or controversial in nature, and hook readers into clicking on links to longer-form content.

Another potential issue is that successful social media accounts require frequent posting.  However, scientists are wary of releasing information in real time, concerned that rival labs could pick it up and beat them to the punch in publishing a paper or developing a product.  Communicating only part of a story can also potentially lead to public concern or misunderstanding.  When key points in the quest are reached, usually in the form of publications, the story can be conveyed in retrospective instalments.  In the meantime, fresh content to complement the quest story can be communicated at regular intervals to maintain audience interest.  Vignettes of lab life such as “a day in the life of” can reinforce the back stories of the heroes of the quest.  Brian Cox’s #TinyBrian series is also a good example of bonus content adding detail to the core research narrative.

Communicating medical science effectively is vital to global health, and it’s time that research institutions listen to the growing body of specialists calling for change.  This will take resource, but will be well worth the effort in not only educating the public in a more engaging and effective way, but inspiring the next generation in how exciting science can be.

This article was researched and written by Kate Forbes. AI was used to create the main image.