Press Officers during the Pandemic

11th December 2020

Press Officers during the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant an unprecedented demand for science and health in the news media in 2020, but how did STEM press officers rise to this challenge? Expertly chaired by Rebecca Zeitin, a huge number of STEMPRA members virtually joined our ‘Press officers in the pandemic’ event which brought together perspectives from four different press offices – a university, a journal, an NHS trust and a charity – to discuss how they responded to the first wave of COVID-19.

Up first was Edd McCracken, Head of News at the University of Edinburgh to share some insights from the press office of a large research university. Ed started off by saying the past 6 months have been mental – the busiest, but also most rewarding, period in his 10 years of working in a press office.

University of Edinburgh academics have been all over the TV since COVID-19 hit the headlines in January, and media coverage from June/July/August this year was 60% higher than in those months in 2019. Edd explained that this is no happy accident but due to the strength of the Edinburgh academics and the work of the press office.

As soon as it was clear COVID was the only story in town, Edd and his team prioritised COVID research and academics. The flexibility of the team meant that everyone could help where needed, and having a newly made corporate comms team allowed the research team to focus solely on the science. To help manage the tsunami of media requests and the pressure on their academics, they created a COVID experts list, a triage system to deal with requests for in-demand academics, provided media training to those most in need and, working with the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, ran workshops to support academics who were thrown into the public eye and needed help dealing with social media trolls.

Next to speak was Emily Head, Media Relations Manager at The Lancet. The Lancet made the decision at the start of the pandemic to publish all their science on COVID as fast as possible and to make this work freely accessible. This gave the media team a clear directive but also resulted in a huge increase in workload.

Like Edd, Emily’s team made the decision to focus solely on COVID-19 research and with an up to a 10 fold increase in submissions and many more fast-tracked publications there was plenty to get through. In addition to the higher number of studies, Emily also had to deal with new audiences who were unaware of the Lancet and the basics of the editorial system and need to have many misconceptions corrected. With all this attention came increased intense scrutiny of the Lancet and the science it published and the need for the press team to collaborate more with editorial colleagues via weekly meetings and a new resource to keep everyone up to date.

Emily’s final point was to highlight the amount of stress and pressure that living through and working on a pandemic can have and to urge those doing this to compartmentalise and prioritise their wellbeing.

The third speaker was Rachael Dowling, NIHR Leicester BRC and CRF Communications Lead who was seconded to University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust corporate communications during the peak.

When the pandemic hit, the phones started ringing and Rachael and her team had to drop everything and take each day as it came. They set up job crib sheets for designated roles including checking the press inbox, running the social media account, answering the phone and managing all the offers of donations – each of these required someone’s full attention and extra staff on short term contracts were hired to deal with the huge increase in workload.

One of Rachael’s jobs was to find positive news stories to raise the staff moral and keep the country supporting the NHS. Luckily these weren’t too hard to find and ranged from babies born in lockdown to Leicester receiving funding for the PHOSP-COVID study for research into the long term consequences of COVID-19.

Rachael agreed with Emily that one of her top tip would be to protect yourselves and your staff to prevent burnout and to schedule in time where a member of the team can full switch off knowing that their work will be covered by their colleagues. Rachael also stressed the importance of collaboration and nurturing relationships with colleagues in NHS England and elsewhere.

Last but not least was Matt Lam, Science Communications Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research. Although Matt was not inundated with COVID-19 research or enquiries like the previous speakers, his work was also widely impacted by the pandemic. 

For Worldwide Cancer Research, 2020 was meant to be the year of raising the profile of their new brand, however the pandemic meant all of these plans had to be scrapped and Matt had to quickly adapt to this new media landscape. Although there was no appetite for stories about new cancer research findings, there were still some stories out there involving cancer, such as the impact of the pandemic on cancer services and Matt was able to add the charity’s voice to these stories by providing expert comments to journalists.

Matt also spoke about looking for potential stories when there are no research stories being provided. By contacting their funded researchers he found out that in Israel cancer research was considered essential work and allowed to continue, this allowed him to create a story around if it should also be considered essential in the UK and meant the charity secured a position on primetime TV news to talk about this debate.

Matt finished by saying that although journalists did not have time to write about cancer research, the charity supporters were still keen to know what was going on and so it was important to cater for this key audience and keep the website and social media channels updated with content.

After hearing from those four excellent speakers it’s clear that the challenges faced by the scicomms community during the pandemic have been considerable and wide-ranging, and that the role press officers have played in informing the public has been irreplaceable. 

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