As the rapid spread of COVID-19 disrupts normal life around the world, with countries shutting schools and universities, the role of science communication has probably never been greater and trustworthy communications are now vital in helping society get through the crisis

With uncanny foresight, the European higher education PR and communication network EUPRIO had planned to focus on Science Communication and Engagement at their 2020 conference, which was due to take place in the northern Italian port city of Trieste at the end of August.

The planned conference in one of the first countries to be affected by coronavirus on a mass scale is obviously causing some concern for the organisers.

But what might have seemed a rather dry subject – even a few months ago – has leapt to the top of the agenda as politicians around the globe rush to consult scientists and other medical experts on how best to defeat the pandemic.

And public relations and communication practitioners have found themselves thrust to the fore trying to calm populations panicking about where to find the next loo roll and trying to fathom out what politicians, like Britain’s Boris Johnson, mean by “social-distancing”. In the UK, this awful term – which perhaps should be replaced with “physical distancing” – has altered its meaning almost by the day.

On a Friday, it seemed to be “Keep cool and carry on” with normal life, unless you are over 70 and planning a cruise. But by Monday, it led to London’s famous theatre-land being “advised” to abandon the wartime spirit that the show must go on and bars and restaurants confused about whether to shut on the eve of St Patrick’s Day celebrations on 17 March.

For the education sector, most universities are now following their counterparts around the world and rushing to move their courses online –  but schools remained open in the UK until what appeared to be another about-turn by the government. On 18 March, England’s Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced schools would close to all, except the children of key workers, such as NHS staff, policy and delivery drivers.

Wonkhe blog

What such such a rapidly changing, and sometimes confusing situation, many organisations – including governments – are struggling to explain in simple terms what the heck is going on!

Independent consultant Simon Horrocks

In a blog for the higher education policy ‘Wonkhe’ website about communicating the impact of Covid-19’, independent consultant Simon Horrocks criticised many universities for failing to deploy digital channels, especially social media, to inform students, staff and parents of the gear changes in how higher education was responding to the growing crisis.

Based on a snapshot of, what I assume were just UK university Twitter accounts, over the critical weekend of 14-15 March, Horrocks said there were stark differences in how institutions were communicating and engaging. “Some accounts had not been updated since Friday,” he complained, adding: “If you were looking for quick information or reassurance about these universities were responding to Covid-19 you wouldn’t have found it here.”

I’ve not seen the data used by Horrocks, but I have seen universities around Europe making an impressive response to harnessing digital technology – not just for teaching – but also for big events and public engagement.

Online dash

The University of Antwerp in Belgium, for instance, switched their planned campus open day on Saturday 14 March into a “virtual e-open day” within seven days.The university’s director of communications is EUPRIO’s President, Jan Dries, whose first-hand experience of the dash to online bodes well as universities close face-to-face teaching and meetings for digital alternatives. 

He reckons the Antwerp e-open day was a huge success, with more than 4000 unique visitors watching pre-recorded and live-streamed info-sessions. “We had 230 professors and staff taking care of more than 2,000 chat sessions. It was an intensive week to prepare all this, needless to say, but I think it made a lot of colleagues confident in handling distance learning – all in one week!”

Getting back to Horrocks and his Wonkhe blog, he did single out one UK university for praise – and it is the one I mentioned in my news blog for EUPRIO, published on Sunday 15 March. The University of Glasgow updated its website and Twitter feed over the 14-15 March weekend, using the channel to “respond calmly and publicly to questions from staff, students and external stakeholders, including oner about whether the campus could still be used or an upcoming wedding,” wrote Horrocks.

Graduating via Skype

Trieste students graduated at home via Skype.

So, from what I’ve seen EUPRIO members and their communication colleagues in universities and research institutes across Europe are fully stretched in the job of keeping students and staff up-to-speed with the latest developments, including the University of Trieste organising a graduation ceremony, via Skype, during the Italian coronavirus lockdown.

Around 1010 students are graduating from February to April in their own homes, via Skype, said Mara Contardo, social media manager at University of Trieste. “We are publishing a gallery with their graduation pics at home. It’s quite funny. Some of them are graduating in suit and tie and others in shirt and pyjama pants,” she said.

As for the University of Glasgow, its social media managers Emma Gilmartin used her @embrooksy8 twitter feed to send out a solidarity message to her HE social media colleagues on Thursday 12 March.

What does this mean for universities in the long-term and will EUPRIO members be able to meet together in Trieste at the end of August for their annual “face-to-face” annual conference?

EUPRIO’s President Jan Dries says: “Hopefully, we will back to some kind of normality by its opening on 30 August – nearly 23 weeks away – and our task force is pressing ahead with conference planning. There will certainly be a lot of valuable recent case-study material on what works  – and just as important, what doesn’t work – in terms of effective science communication in an emergency such as this.” 

Communicating risk

The chairman of the conference scientific committee is Enrico M. Balli, whose day job is  Chief Executive Officer at Sissa MediaLab in Trieste. Talking to me for a news blog on the  EUPRIO website, he emphasised that what has happened with both traditional and social media clearly shows that we all need better communication about risk and research.

“Fact checking is extremely important today, especially with journalists being less well paid and often working freelance.  Social media can spread misinformation at great speed by copying posts from sources that not reliable and can cause the kind of ‘infodemic’ we’ve observed in the last few weeks,” he said.

The value of the planned discussions at Trieste gathering, according to Enrico, was that unlike many European ‘scicomms’ conferences, which are often aimed at scholars and practitioners outside the academic world, the EUPRIO event was going to bring together communications professionals from universities all over European countries to focus on the communication of science.

Building trust

In his full-time role, Enrico specialises in building trust between researchers and journalists. “You build trust with the quality of the information you provide and the capability to understand the needs of researchers and their research,” he says.

If there is one thing that the coronavirus has shown, it is the value of timely and trustworthy information from scientists and other experts to policy-makers and the need for effective communications to the public at large.

So, as communication practitioners do their best to help organisations – from governments and health services to schools and universities – to keep the public informed of the facts and counter ‘fake news’, I wish them good luck.

And for higher education, I wonder if the dash to replace face-to-face lectures with online learning over the past few weeks has been a process that may change the face of higher education for ever!

  • Main image from University of Trieste
  • EUPRIO’s 2020 annual conference in Trieste, Italy, has been postponed until next year when hopefully there will be either be a vaccine for the virus or things will be under better control.