From the President’s Desk: Will public trust in scientists decline in wake of Covid-19?

Robert Simpson

Robert Simpson

President & CEO

For the last 20 years, Robert has specialized in strategic communication and public relations, focusing his passion for storytelling to help organizations achieve greater impact. As PR Associates’ leader, Robert plays a role in collaborating with clients and our teams to develop strategies and create experiences that deepen audience engagement.

Public perception of scientists as trustworthy experts is likely to be negatively impacted by the coronavirus crisis, according to new research. Here’s a PR plan for reversing the impact. 

I hear it often argued that the Covid-19 pandemic will reverse the ongoing trend of diminishing trust in science and scientists, but a new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the current generation experiencing Covid-19 in their formative years may end up distrusting scientists for a long period of their lives. 

The paper Revenge of the Experts: Will Covid-19 Renew or Diminish Public Trust in Science?, examined how exposure to previous epidemics affected individuals’ levels of confidence in science and scientists, focusing on those who experienced an epidemic outbreak in their country of residence while they were in their “impressionable years” between age 18 and 25. 

The paper found that such exposure had no impact on people’s views of the value of science as an endeavour. However, it significantly reduced their confidence in scientists and the benefits of scientists’ work, the research revealed. In particular, they were less confident about the trustworthiness and public-spiritedness of scientists. 

The authors suggest that scientists working on public health should “think harder about how to communicate trustworthiness and honesty and, specifically, about how the generation currently in their impressionable years perceives such attributes”. 

Dr Aksoy, one of the authors of the paper, said the findings reveal that there is “adivide between what scientists do and…the perception in the publicPrevious research shows that the communicator’s credibility and perceived expertise are key in scientific communication and gaining public trust. At a time of an epidemic, scientists are called to address the public’s concerns and advise those in charge. However, if scientists fail to explain their findings clearly and concisely and fail to inspire trust in public, people will probably see them as elitists or inaccessible,” he said. 

This is where public relations and communication comes in.  

These traditional behaviours have to change. If they don’t, science will continue to be seen as closed off and an elitist realm, and the public will continue to feel shut out, disenfranchised, and suspicious. Science has too long ignored public relations, marketing, and personal branding, and it’s time for that to change. 

Rick Borchelt and his colleagues in an essay for the American Association for the Advancement of Science makes this point even more poignant: “The scientific community needs to understand what ethical practitioners of public relations have long known: trust is not about information; it’s about dialogue and transparency” (Borcheltet al.2010.Science and The Media, D. Kennedy and G. Overholser, eds. AAAS). 

How do scientists achieve dialogue instead? First and foremost, they have to make a concentrated effort to get involved in the public discussion about science though social and digital media. 

In our Science of Communication—effectively communicating science through social and digital media ™ workshops we provide scientists with the tools for effective social and digital media engagement 

The previous world view of one-way communication, of one source to many readers, viewers or listeners – has rapidly changed into a multi-faceted communications universe, where niche-audience customization for increased relevancy has become the norm. 

If we are going to reverse the impact of Covid 19 and a generation that grows up less confident about the trustworthiness and public-spiritedness of scientists, we need to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the evolving digital media landscape and go beyond tactics to employ a strategic approach to engagement on digital channels. These actions need to go far beyond merely opening a few social media accounts and more resources are being devoted to content strategy, data analytics, channel strategy, technology and overarching social business strategy. 

If the science community wants to avert our next generation’s Revenge of the Experts, now is a good time to get started. 

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