Crafting the narrative; telling our stories

First a bit on COVID, then a small request.

COVID will surely provide a wealth of material for future Monday morning armchair quarterbacking. One aspect (among many) of the overall public health response that has received harsh and severe criticism has been the approach, style, and substance of communications with the general public. From the WHO’s early tagline of ‘we have no evidence’ to the ‘Noble lies’ about masking (‘you don’t need a mask, you do need a mask, you need two masks’) and the continually moving goalposts of herd immunity (which might currently be in a different stadium), the public has experienced mental whiplash with confusing guidelines and recommendations. At the same time, social media platforms struggle to moderate and censor misinformation only to discover that last month’s misinformation is now the subject of today’s intense investigation. Vaccine hesitancy – while a persistent issue for the US that has never been adequately addressed – has taken on increased importance with COVID.

While it’s clear that for a rapidly unfolding, novel emerging infectious disease for which medicine has little practical experience ‘facts’ will morph and evolve over time, the ability to communicate our current status with multiple groups, but at the same time also convey uncertainties (to paraphrase the late Donald Rumsfeld – ‘the unknown knowns and the known unknowns’) is critical for productive engagement. Community engagement is something CTSAs devote a considerable amount of effort towards and what we’re talking about here is leveling up engagement to a national and even global scale. Effective engagement can lead to productive communication, and productive communication in turn fuels effective ongoing engagement. Importantly, the ingredients of effective communication blend what your audience needs to know as well as what they want to know, and all in a manner and style they can understand. All too often we ‘blame’ lack of education or understanding of basic scientific principles as a basis for poor communication. Scientists will assume that if the public were better schooled in science, they could understand the issues more clearly and arrive at the same conclusion scientists hold – ignoring the fact that even scientists looking at the same data can arrive at different conclusions.

As a result, for COVID and beyond, I know the CTSAs are doing exceptional science and we (NCATS) want to talk about it. We have been putting effort into building out our communications to go beyond the traditional NIH research communities and appeal to a wider audience. Dedicated staff (like Dr. Sanae ElShourbagy Ferreira) are focused on capturing and telling your stories, especially about your people – and not just your current TL1s, KL2s, and Diversity and Re-Entry supplement awardees, but also former trainees and scholars so that prospective candidates can see the potential that CTSAs can offer to future rising stars. We’re also interested in outcomes and impact from your work. All too often when NIH is asked about the success of a past initiative, the metric offered is peer-reviewed publications. While publications may be necessary, they are clearly not sufficient. Your stories, especially those personalized with young investigators, can readily engage the diverse audience we are trying to reach (your Congressional representatives especially love to hear about people and activities in their own backyard).

So please, send us your stories; the ones that you’re most proud of, the ones that continue to drive you forward, and the ones that have captured the attention of your local media. We need your stories to craft and convey the CTSA narrative.

“The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably,
but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communications is getting

-Sydney J. Harris

P.S. You can send your stories to your communications advocate here at NCATS Division of Clinical Innovation – Sanae ElShourbagy Ferreira, PhD, MA at [email protected].