How to talk about your charity’s research during COVID-19

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Medical research has always been a challenge to talk about with supporters – it’s complicated, often intangible, and may not benefit anyone for decades to come. But now with many projects paused and labs locked down, thanks to COVID-19, talking about research may seem even more difficult for charities. 

Even as the lockdown slowly lifts, it is still an incredibly difficult time for the sector. Resources are stretched, and staff are furloughed, reducing the capacity to take on the increased workload. Sadly, some charities have decided to make some staff redundant. 

As for science communications, I’ve seen many medical charities understandably shifting their focus towards providing support to patients and talking about the issues affecting them right now. I’ve heard from some medical charities whose research comms function has been subsumed into other teams or even disappeared entirely for now.

So it’s entirely understandable that there might not be any room talk about research at the moment. 

But if you can do so, there’s still plenty of ways you can talk about your charity’s research – even if it’s not actively happening right now. Below I’ve gathered a few examples of how other medical research charities are handling this.  

Explain the impact of COVID-19 on your research

Medical research funded by charities has taken a hit during the pandemic. The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) reports that more than half of charities have paused or stopped most or all (75%-100%) of their research (data in this PDF). 

At the beginning of the ‘lockdown’, many research charities put out statements to tell them what’s happening. As an example, this statement for Breast Cancer Now explains the impact on their research. It sets out what’s happening, what research has stopped (and what’s continuing). It also addresses how it will affect their overall research goals too. Cancer Research UK has taken a similar approach.

These kinds of statements, as gloomy as they might be, are essential for keeping supporters up to date with the research they’re helping to make possible. Many charities have launched emergency fundraising appeals to make up for lost income. They have increased spending to support people with health conditions. These kinds of statements can also help these appeals by explaining the impact of the pandemic on charity. 

Share stories from researchers in lockdown

Of course, stats and facts are not the only way to demonstrate impact – positive or negative. Many charities ask people to tell their personal story of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some charities also share stories from researchers about how their work has been affected. 

Worldwide Cancer Research has an excellent series of blog posts on how their researchers have been affected. For example, this article from a researcher in the USA provides all the details you’d expect from a ‘patient-led’ story. It details the impact on her professional and personal life.  Alzheimer’s Research UK share videos on social media from their scientists, explaining how research can continue while ‘working from home’, and how they hope to get started again soon

Highlight the research that is still happening

Though scientists may not be able to get into their labs or offices, that doesn’t mean that everyone’s been sitting at home twiddling their thumbs. There is still some active research taking place. It might not be the kind that involves Petri dishes or microscopes, but why should that be the only type considered to be ‘proper’ research? 

Epilepsy Research UK share a great example of some exciting research that continuing despite COVID-19. I’d like to see more charities highlight brilliant examples of non-lab-based research continuing, despite the pandemic. 

Another important aspect of research is science conferences. And though many have been cancelled, some have been taking place online. As ever, there are important developments to report in the usual ways. Alzheimer’s Research UK report from their recent scientific meeting, and the Institute for Cancer Research also reports from a major cancer conference

Set out how you’ll get research back to normal

There will be a time when researchers can get back into active research. How is your charity supporting scientists to help them get up and running as quickly as possible? A scientist at the Institute of Cancer Research gives his opinion on how he hopes to “press the reset button” and start his research afresh with ambitious plans

How is your charity contributing to COVID-19 research?

Some charities have initiated new research programmes to respond to COVID-19. For example, MQ: Transforming Mental Health has convened an expert panel to set out key priorities for mental health research during the pandemic. Diabetes UK now funds research to understand the impact of COVID-19 on people with diabetes.

Not every charity will be able to start completely new research initiatives like this. But if your charity is funding or coordinating COVID-related research that aligns with your cause, then it’s a great thing to talk about to your supporters. It’s relevant, it’s timely, and it urgently needs funding.  

Researchers joining the fight against COVID-19

Since many researchers have been unable to continue their work, some have volunteered to help the fight against COVID-19. Either by working to find treatments or vaccines, helping with processing COVID-19 tests or for clinician-scientists, returning to hospitals.

British Heart Foundation share short examples of how their scientists are getting involved in COVID-19 research, some of which is still related to heart and circulatory diseases. Cancer Research UK share stories from the individual scientist of how they’re getting involved. Such as this one about scientists repurposing their lab’s 3D printers to make PPE visors

However, as a charity, the messaging of your researchers switching to COVID-19 research might be tricky to get right. Recently, there were heated exchanges on Twitter between a CRUK-funded scientist and a few people living with cancer, who felt that essential cancer research is being abandoned and that the charity ‘celebrating’ this switch is distasteful.

I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of the argument, but for me, it reinforces that people still really care about your charity’s research. COVID-19 is not the only thing going on in people’s lives.

How can people get involved in research from home?

Many clinical trials have been unable to happen during the pandemic. But there are still studies taking place, such as online surveys, that need participants. By acting as a link between people and researchers, your charity is in a great place to facilitate this important work – whether it’s COVID-related or not.

Alzheimer’s Society outlines the different ways that people can support dementia research while isolating at home in their blog. MS Society is inviting people with multiple sclerosis to take part in a major study. MQ has updated its research register to include COVID-related mental health research studies

Highlighting different ways that people can help support research, beyond donating, is a great way to reinforce that research is still happening. 

Is there space for ‘business as usual’?

Here’s a thought: say there wasn’t a pandemic going on right now, and a scientist funded by your charity had published some interesting results from their work. How would you share it with the world?

You might put together a press release. You might write a blog. Or you might record a snappy video for social media. Or jot a short paragraph for your e-newsletter. You may send an update to a donor who supported the work.  

Now, remember – research is still being published, and all these things are still possible, even during a pandemic. (OK, I’ll admit a press release might struggle to get cut-through right now.)

Here’s some examples:

People still care about your charity’s cause. They care about your research. They want to hear from you about the work they’re helping to support, and how they can help in the future. If you can, don’t stop talking about your charity’s research. 

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