The world needs more scientific superheroes – insights from our Healthtech webinar

Last week I hosted a fascinating panel discussion in our ‘Brands Transforming Our World’ autumn webinar series, where we discussed the challenges health tech brands have faced this year, to remain contextually relevant when all the oxygen in the news agenda for science and technology reporters continues to be absorbed by COVID-19. My thanks to the amazing panel, as well as my tremendous colleagues Nikhol, Ivelina, Danielle, Emily, Jacqui and many more, who willed it into existence.

With the help of our expert panel, Omar Ehsan, CCO at Oxford University spin-out Oxford Brain Diagnostics, Matt Reynolds, Science Editor at Wired UK and Corinne Marsolier, digital health adviser and telehealth pioneer, we looked at how companies have pivoted, the challenges of science and health tech communications and debated how Covid would impact our audience in the years to come.

In case you missed it, you can access the recording here or below:


Here are my top three takeaways from what was a very lively discussion!

1. We need more scientific superheroes

There is an argument that after a year of consistent stories about R-numbers, ventilators, mRNA vaccines and “tierings”, we are perhaps as a general public, more confused than before. It was unanimous amongst the whole panel that we need more “scientific superheroes”, to confidently and honestly stand up in front of the general population to give them the information they need, in a way they can clearly understand. Whoever does it, in Omar’s words, can all ‘stand out, be authentic and trustworthy and convey scientific evidence with one agenda – to support public health’.

And this must start with communication and training around how to deliver messages clearly that will cut through the noise, reduce confusion and increase trust. Matt commented on the need to meet people where their own knowledge lies. To not just say what is important but explain why it is important for them. We need to get better at bringing in another layer of analysis – for example, we see reports of the R number going up in the North East of England. But why is this happening? Is it because contact tracing in schools has been made easier so the number of reported cases has gone up? Simple explanations by our scientific superheroes to elegantly convey the key points of interest to the public will be a critical piece of the education puzzle in the future.

And, like Jonathan Van-Tam, perhaps practice your metaphors first on a willing subject.

If you watch the replay, spot the moment where I almost fail to resist saying “Tank fly, boss walk, jam nitty gritty, this scientific learning’s coming from your boy, Chris Whitty.”

2. Humanise your stories to create authenticity

A key takeaway from Matt, who has seen his broad mandate for science coverage somewhat overwhelmed by Covid, was a call for more humanisation in our story telling. We shouldn’t be afraid to tell the media about the characters and back stories of our journey. We have started to see the seeds of this happening this year – with more stories about people who have dedicated their lives to something that on the surface seems irrelevant, but in fact has a huge impact on many of us. The origin stories of the immigrant founders of BioNTech is a case in point, but so too the colour behind JC-T, and even boss-man Chris Whitty telling us how he’s spending Christmas.

This not only empowers us to be more creative with our storytelling, it helps to generate a level of authenticity that has perhaps been missing from some of the covid-related news being told in the media. There have been occasions this year where stories have felt trivial, shaky and without good evidence to back them up. Whilst Matt believes the pandemic has created some opportunities for companies to demonstrate their relevance (e.g. Benevolent AI highlighting how their technology identified a rheumatoid arthritis drug that could dampen some of the effects of Covid-19), there has to be an authentic link in the story.

We can do that by bringing in doctors, patients and pharma into mainstream conversations earlier and more regularly, to provide the much needed insight into how new developments are going to tangibly impact people’s lives. And perhaps some of the superhero scientists working in these organisations will be unlocked as spokespeople, emboldened by seeing their peers do the same through this most extraordinary of years.

3. It’s all about trust

In a poll we took during the webinar, the majority of our audience felt that the deluge of Covid-19 information this year has actually resulted in people feeling more confused, rather than net better educated.

Corinne rightly pointed out that as confusion goes up, trust goes down. The critical currency this year has been trust – with everyone affected, emotions running high and uncertainty around what we’re being told in the media, companies have a duty to use communications effectively to rebuild and re-earn the trust from their audiences. How can you continue to remain as close as possible with your customer, partners and key stakeholders, to get through this transition period together?

We also discussed whether the rise of pre-prints – non-peer reviewed scientific papers released onto the web – would help generate or fracture the trust built up with the public. Generally speaking, everyone agreed that pre-prints were here to stay but there needed to be better transparency around the fact that science can go ‘up, down and sideways,’ as Matt put it. In other words, we need to be realistic about the uncertainty inherent in the scientific process and contextualise pre-prints properly to try to avoid a misleading headline! Matt suggested too that the media needed to take some responsibility for interpreting and reporting on these stories well.

As Omar concluded, we as communicators need to be authentic, trusted and appreciated and the methods of how we communicate has a big part to play. How we communicate evidence, new trial data, drug development and so on is an important priority for the year ahead, and our audiences are ready to listen.

Thank you to Omar, Matt and Corinne for a fabulous discussion! For the full recording, please see here.

If you would like to discuss some of these topics with the team in more detail, do drop us a line, or sign up for our ongoing newsletter, Driving Change in Comms.

Written by Armand David, Managing Director, Applied Innovation