Looking forward to 2021

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In this blog post, I reflect on the last year. And what I think as charity communications we all need to do in 2021 (myself included). 

This is slightly different from my ‘normal’ blog posts, in that I’m not really providing any of my usual tips or inspiration from the charity sector. But there’s been a few thoughts swirling around in my head during 2020 that I need to get down before the year ends. 

I’d love to hear what you think – whether there’s anything that resonates with you, or which you complete disagree with. Just send me an email, or come at me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

COVID vaccines and the promise of research

The development of effective and safe vaccines for COVID-19 at record speed is an incredible achievement. It’s taken people from all areas of what I think of as ‘The System’ of medical research. Lab scientists, clinical researchers and pharmaceutical companies. Doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals. And many more people in funding and regulatory agencies. 

I’ve seen plenty of patient groups and medical charities point to COVID vaccines as the promise of what can be done in their own disease areas if people work together with focus. “If we can do this for COVID, we can do it for _____”. The challenge is delivering on this promise. 

The vaccines and treatments delivered for COVID this year are an incredible achievement. No one can doubt the hard work gone into them. But it is one thing to get The System focusing on one disease which barely even existed a year ago. It’s another thing entirely to deliver similar transformation for thousands of illnesses and conditions which scientists have been battling for decades. 

Perhaps this year has beaten the optimism out of me. I fear that the critical mass of enthusiasm out there is not for completely changing how we do things, but instead for “getting back to normal” (ie. go back to the old ways). I sincerely hope I’m wrong. Maybe things are going to change for the better. 

For communicators within medical research charities, selling the idea of “If we can do it for COVID…” may seem like an attractive way to boost engagement and support. But if your charity isn’t prepared to do the legwork to make sure it happens, it’s a trap. 

Hope will be raised in the short-term among the public, supporters, and patients. But the danger is this will eventually give way to cynicism and anger when the promise of “a cure for ___” within a year isn’t realised.

On the other hand, the breakthroughs of COVID vaccines will act as proof that things have changed. That cures can be produced seemingly out of thin air. Patients and supporters often ask why it takes so long to get treatments from the lab into the clinic for patients who urgently need them. Typical answers – like “research takes a long time”, “the process must be slow to be rigorous”, “there’s a lot of hoops to jump through” – will not wash any more.

The current situation leaves communicators within medical research charities in a difficult position. And honestly, I don’t have any great answers as to what to do. All I can say is communications teams shouldn’t be writing cheques your charity’s strategy can’t cash. 

One thing I think that charities could talk about more is the parts of The System which don’t involve scientists in lab coats. Medical research charities are comfortable talking about their research, and the wider research field. I feel they are less comfortable talking about grant funding, clinical trial administration, regulatory bodies, and the like. These might be the boring parts of the journey that gets drugs to patients. However, they are absolutely essential.

This thread from science writer Dr Kat Arney (which starts in the tweet below) is a great overview of why things have sped up. (Spoiler: it’s not really anything to do with scientists being superheroes, all of a sudden). This article provides a deeper dive on what’s changed. 

Comms will need to work smarter in 2021

The charity sector has been hit hard by the pandemic. The medical research charity sector has not been immune. I fear that 2021 will be even more of a struggle for charities than 2020, as charity reserves dwindle and furlough support ends. 

For me, it means that communications teams within charities will need to be even smarter with the work they do. 

I have a simplistic view of the jobs that charity people do. In my opinion, there are three roles in a charity: ‘raising the money’, ‘making the difference’, and ‘helping the other two do their job better’. Everyone’s job within a charity is a blend of these three elements. 

Comms teams sometimes do work that ‘makes the difference’ (ie. fulfils what the charity exists to do). For example, reaching patients and the public with important information about their health. 

But often, if we’re truly honest, the work we do as comms folks is not ‘making the difference’. Activities like raising brand awareness, producing great content, writing impact reports, and scripting canny videos may sometimes feel like worthy work. But your charity’s supporters don’t donate money so that you can make an impact report – they donate money to make an impact. So when doing this kind of work, I’d argue we’re ‘raising the money’. It might not always feel like it, but it’s true. 

For the next year, the parts of our job that aren’t ‘making the difference’ must be focussed on ‘raising the money’. The direct work we do for our fundraising colleagues has to be the priority. The indirect work we do to ‘raise the money’ (producing great content, etc.) must be examined to make sure it’s having the impact that we want. For every project we do, we should be asking “how is this going to lead to increased donations for our charity?” The answer might mean maximising the work we do to release its full potential. It might mean stopping doing some things altogether. 

I say ‘we’ and ‘our’ work because I include myself in this. Yes, I sometimes write information for my charity clients aimed at patients and their families, that I hope is ‘making the difference’. But most of the time, the work I do is ultimately aimed at raising money for the charity. Am I doing this effectively? Honestly, I’m not always 100% sure. On my list of “things to focus on in 2021” is to examine how I’m doing this, and how I could be doing better.   

Discrimination, representation, and unheard voices

This year the Black Lives Matter movement has raised public awareness of the systemic racism that exists everywhere. And there’s a huge amount of work to do to counteract this in the charity sector, medicine, and in research. 

For one, we need to look at us as staff within these organisations. I’ve seen for myself offices of medical research charities largely filled with white middle-class people (and yes, I’m one of them). Organisations like Charity So White and Show The Salary are doing incredible work, trying to change the make-up of the charity sector at an incredible pace. They need support – from individuals, but also from sector-wide bodies, who frankly should be taking leadership and doing this work themselves.

As always, encouraging words for others are great. But we also need to translate these sentiments into action. Specifically, as comms people in medical charities, what can we do?

First step – acknowledge that system racism exists within research and the charity sector, as much as it exists anywhere else, and that this needs to change. We need to understand how us as people and as charities can be a part of this. Catch-up on Collette Philip’s CharityComms webinar on “How to be an anti-racist brand” if you haven’t seen it already – it’s great. 

Representation in communications matters. We need to diversify the sources we interview, and the people who feature in videos and images. Science writer Ed Yong wrote a piece about his two-year journey to having an equal number of male and female contributors in his articles. What could that look like for you and your charity?

But diversifying who features in articles videos and images should not be the only action. Looking beyond, we also need to diversify the topics we talk about. Sharing stories of research successes of scientists from different backgrounds is great. But maybe we also need to seek out other stories which don’t naturally rise to our attention. For example, stories about discrimination, inequality in access to healthcare, and social determinants of health. We need to shine a light on the reality, but also provide the hope that things can change. Doing this might involve diversifying our communications team and who we ask to write these stories. 

Here are a few good examples from medical research charities. Please do share with me any more you’ve come across.

Yikes, it’s been a hell of a year. I hope you have a good rest over the holidays, and that 2021 starts a little more hopeful and positive. If anything here has resonated with you – or you just want to reach out and say hello – please do get in touch, either by email, or on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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