26 June 2020

Eat responsibly? Communicate better

Return to all

Communication the key to releasing the full value of research

Ainslie Ballinger / anslie@nwkcom.co.nz

Successful government policy, commercial strategies and behaviour change are all rooted in scientific research. But the research alone is only half of the story. Success more often than not comes down to how the research is used and communicated.

Effective science communication has been front and centre in New Zealand for the past few months. From the moment the pandemic hit our shores, the Prime Minister made it clear that our journey through and out of restrictions would be staged, based on data and evidence provided by the Ministry of Health and a scientific technical advisory group.

Throughout the journey, we learned about R-values and embraced the need to flatten the curve, thanks largely to the way this information was presented to us by both the Government and across media and social media. 

This week we also learned that our recognisably Kiwi style is now resonating with a global audience; Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris from The Spinoff having been commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to produce infographics that convey important messaging around COVID-19. All this shows that we have the capacity and capability to make a difference.

While recent focus has been understandably drawn to our epidemiology capability, it’s important to note that we have world class research institutes here in New Zealand across a broad scientific spectrum, including some dedicated to the country’s food production – one of our largest export industries and income generators.

For a number of years now, health organisations have questioned whether it is appropriate for food companies to commission institutes such as these to conduct studies related to the nutritional aspects of the food they sell. The clear risk being inferred here is that by defining the parameters of the study, a company is able to leverage the institute’s scientific gravitas to support its own marketing story.

I wholeheartedly believe that food companies should be able to use scientific research to their advantage. But this needs to be done transparently, allowing the institutes complete ownership of the research methodology and contextual packaging of results.

Sharing this information as part of the communications around research on a specific food product, dietary patterns, or the environments we live in, ultimately benefits everyone. My golden rules for this would include:

  • Be completely transparent and upfront about funding the research
  • Articulate how you will ensure complete independence from the research - including addressing inherent bias
  •  Acknowledge flaws in research methodology openly and completely
  • If the results don’t fit the narrative you want to push, then don’t communicate the narrative
  • Reference the totality of evidence on the research topic to provide context to any narrative and/or key messages
  • Plan for your communications to reach your desired target groups – don’t just share the results of your research with easy-to-reach audiences; engage with those groups who the research is relevant to.