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What to Do and Not to Do Now

Communicating your research-based expertise in the teeth of COVID-19.

Here’s a condensed version of what I’m telling all my clients — all researchers who run their own teams and organizations, large and small — right now:

There is only one story for the foreseeable future.

If you can’t be hyper-relevant to it, hold off on almost all your communications for now.

This is not a time to grow new audiences. If that happens, let it be a by-product of sharing your insights broadly, not a goal.

This is a time to consolidate your closest communities — to gather them and be of service to them in doing so.

So many people are in fear for their lives and those they care about — some acutely, the rest in a low-level but mounting way that’s steadily eroding their openness to anything not relevant to their predicament. They have the tunnel vision and hearing of people in crisis. They want information to relieve their uncertainty, and they can’t actually hear or see anything else unless it’s an amusing or stupid diversion from what we all face.

Anything you publish must be hyper-relevant to this context and equipped to thrive within it.

The corollary is also true: Share your hyper-relevant insights now and keep sharing them.

The marketplace for research-based insights — insights that will help your communities understand what’s going on, how it will impact them and how they can get through the crisis — has never been hotter.

And speed-to-market for that insight is everything. Some researchers are going from Twitter thread to op-ed and national TV spots in less than 24 hours. If you can quickly deliver pinpoint relevance and utility, your expertise can make an outsize difference.

What do I mean by “pinpoint relevance and utility”? Look at Urban’s county-level US interactive map of hospital bed capacities nationwide. On a smaller level, look at Roger Pielke, changing the syllabus for his current science & society course to become hyper-relevant to the crisis.

You should be threading and publishing on your own channels if you have a following — not going through organizational channels that have multiple layers of approval. (Example: See Tom Inglesby’s very influential thread on what happens if the US public stops social distancing soon.)

If your insights aren’t relevant, table them for now — certainly for all but your most closely-held audiences. They won’t be heard. And you’ll look tone-deaf at best when you insist on sharing them.

Here’s a list of especially important don’ts:

  • Don’t reference the virus and then use the rest of an email to tell us your team or group or organization is still hard at work or open for business.
  • Don’t use the virus as a metaphor for climate change or any other issue you want to insist is at least as important or still relevant despite the world falling apart around us.
  • Don’t say that the problems your work or organization addresses are advancing exponentially just as the virus is.
  • Don’t say that we are failing to address and proactively prepare for those problems in just the same way we failed to address and proactively prepare for this crisis.

We’re all seeing and being sent forms of the above list. Just…don’t do any of that. You will look desperate. Petulant, quite possibly. And definitely irrelevant.

Also: If you are delivering expertise-based solutions, make sure they are actionable and pinpoint. A credible solution cannot be “change everything,” even if you truly believe that. A credible solution does not look like your Christmas-tree wish list for the world. Social psychology tells us that disasters take enormous tolls on the mental health of survivors, and the first task is to restore community resilience, not make massive change. Give us the insight on how to turn the ratchet of the world a click or two in the right direction, instead of complaining about the injustice of ratchets.

Don’t try to communicate new papers right now. Please. Who cares?(Which is probably a question you should be asking about much more often about them, anyway.)

Stop predicting; start describing. Too many online publications are running vapid compendia of expert predictions for Life After COVID-19 that essentially catalog those experts’ own biases and hobbyhorses. Focus on the present instead. Tell us, for instance, how COVID-19 is making existing divisions or inequalities in your community wider or creating new ones. Ask hard questions about the now. Deliver expertise and insight about what’s happening or not happening, instead of betting on roulette numbers. (Some examples of doing it right: Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution post “But when will you favor a shift in coronavirus strategy? (no Straussians in a pandemic)”; Zeynep Tufecki’s NY Times piece on “Why Telling People They Don’t Need Masks Backfired,” plus her Twitter thread on the same topic.)

Convene your core community. IRL events are wiped out for the moment, and those through the autumn in the Northern Hemisphere are in serious question. O’Reilly Media just killed its IRL events business and took them all online. The world is littered with online check-ins and webinars. This is not the time to do those; this is the time for you to bring specific value to your core community through bespoke convenings that bring your closely-held audiences (partners, collaborators, clients, prospects, media) together in small, off-the-record gatherings to talk candidly about how the crisis is impacting your sector, how your colleagues are handling and planning for what might come next, and what future-proofing and resilience for each of you might look like. Seed these conversations beforehand with questions from trusted colleagues, open with very short remarks and then guide the conversation. Establish a Slack channel for the group to continue the conversation. Collaborate with your community to think about how such convenings could turn into an ongoing series of value for the group.

Level up: develop your skills and improve your communications infrastructure. Data viz, Twitter threads, op-eds and (to a lesser extent) podcasts and email newsletters have been the most impactful formats of communicating research-based expertise and establishing authority during this period. That’s because these formats are still clear, nimble and scalable to varying degrees through networks. If your research communications game is weak in any of these areas, use this period to study the forms, develop capabilities and get better. Watch how other researchers are succeeding and use this time to level up to what they’re doing.

There is no shame — and plenty of gain — in sitting this out to facilitate knowledge-sharing among your closely held communities and to sharpen your saw as a researcher authority. Touch base with your most important people — your funders, your donors, your partners and collaborators, your clients and prospects if you run a for-profit. Write some op-eds for issues that you know will eventually come back into the public conversation and bank them. Work on a 20-minute talk for nonspecialists, or revise the one you have. Get media training, or take another session of training. If you run a research shop, get an outside expert to evaluate the public engagement skill sets of your researchers and how they might improve.

If your expertise isn’t on point for the crisis, use the time to reload.

I fervently wish good health for all of you.

2.5 million research papers are published every year — so how are research-driven organizations breaking through the noise? Find out: subscribe to my Tuesday and Friday emails on research communications and authority content.

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How research expertise becomes authority.

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Bob Lalasz

Bob Lalasz

Founder & principal, Science+Story. Guiding researchers to become public experts & research organizations to share their expertise publicly.

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