Author Archives: Emily Gregg

How to talk about COVID-19 for conservation professionals

We’re all currently living though a time of uncertainty and personal crisis, so – while I’m sure you’re growing very used to seeing these words at the top of every email – I hope you and your communities are going okay.

Every day our communication and use of language matters, but during a crisis like this, the impact of communication becomes particularly clear.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

We can all have a positive influence on the language and social discourse around this crisis by being mindful about our own conversations and encouraging thoughtful and strategic communication approaches in our own workplace and community groups.

Below are my recommendations for conservation professionals on how to talk about COVID-19, drawing from my own strategic communications experience and some of the fantastic advice and resources published recently online (see below for links).

Be generous and understanding

People are – at the very least –  stressed and anxious right now. Many people have lost their jobs, and everyone is going through changes in their lifestyle and work life. Being considerate and aware of what everyone is going through, considering when others may be more seriously impacted than yourself, and making sure this is reflected in the tone and approach of your communications will encourage empathy and remind us that we’re all in this together.

Be accurate

Help to prevent the spread of misinformation by checking your sources before you pass on information. Don’t reshare infographics or lists of recommendations without checking where they come from. Listen to authorities like the World Health Organisation and government departments when it comes to sharing recommendations and guidelines. The stakes for miscommunication of health information are higher in a crisis situation. Individuals may be more susceptible to misinformation, and clear communication around the changing situation and up-to-date advice are vital for an effective coordinated response from the community as a whole.

Be clear on the purpose of your communication

Part of being generous and understanding is being clear on the purpose of your communications. This involves carefully considering who your intended audience is and what exactly you are asking of them (if anything!) and whether this ask is appropriate right now. Having a clear purpose is a key basis for any kind of strategic communication, but it is particularly important during a crisis such as COVID-19, when individuals are being bombarded with sometimes conflicting and highly emotional messages (and even advertisers are using coronavirus to sell).

Most communications around COVID-19 will be aiming to inform or educate the public or encourage compliance with local government recommendations, or (more often) both! There are many different communication approaches and strategies that can be applied for both these aims but for the purposes of this blog post I will discuss two broad kinds of communication: science communication and strategic communication.

Science communication (e.g. increasing public understanding of how COVID-19 spreads, explaining prediction models, debunking myths etc.)

Examples: ABC’s Coronacast, RMIT’s Fact Check

Science communication traditionally uses the knowledge-deficit model: the idea that people will change how they think and behave if they understand the science. In a public health crisis situation like the COVID-19 crisis, this approach can be more effective than usual as members of the public tend to be paying more attention to expert advice and be more likely to take it on board.

Science communication has a crucial role to play in COVID-19 communications, particularly around how the virus spreads, and how individuals can protect themselves and their communities. But effectively and accurately communicating science and health research to the public can be a challenge. Clearly communicating uncertainty and risk can be particularly challenging but it is crucial for helping the public understand the uncertainties around predictive models of the spread of the virus and around the predicted effectiveness of different interventions.

However, since humans do not always behave rationally, we cannot rely entirely on traditional science communication approaches to trigger behavioural changes like compliance with recommendations.

Strategic communication (e.g. increasing public compliance with physical distancing recommendations, fostering a culture of community and optimism)

Examples: Dan Andrews’ social media profiles, ACF’s covid update

Strategic communications specifically aim to encourage people to act in a certain way (e.g. physical distancing) or foster a particular message frame or narrative in the media or social discourse. Strategic communication is an umbrella term that encompasses many kinds of purposeful communications approaches, including crisis and risk communication, and public engagement.

In all kinds of strategic communication, you should consider what you want your listeners or readers to do as a result of your message. Will the tone, structure and focus of your message change your audience’s behaviour in a desirable way? For example, it may be tempting to use social media to express your own feelings and opinions about an issue you are passionate about, but if you are ultimately aiming to encourage people to act in a certain way, that may not be the most suitable approach (depending on your audience). Consider carefully your communication goals, your audience and your approach before you post.

It is also worth noting that science communication and strategic communication approaches are not mutually exclusive. Science communication can be strategically designed, and strategic communication can incorporate scientific ideas and concepts into messages. 

Be careful with your language

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Photo by Марьян Блан | @marjanblan on Unsplash

Small changes in the language we use can have substantial impacts on understanding and perceptions around an issue. Below are some common recommendations for language use around COVID-19. Check out the further reading links or check out Dr Suzanne Wertheim’s Twitter thread below for more detail and research around these tips.

  • Describe numbers of detected cases as “known cases” instead of “cases”
  • Make human agency explicit by describing how “we spread the virus by going outside” rather than “the virus is spreading itself”
  • Use social norming (i.e. make it about me, us, we, our community) to make the issue personally and socially relevant, and communicate how “most Australians are doing the right thing by staying home” rather than saying “people aren’t staying home!” (us humans like doing what other people are doing!)
  • Describe staying at home as “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” to convey how we still want people to stay connected and social but taking care of each other by staying away
  • Emphasise kindness, community and cooperation rather than fear, othering or panic

Can we still talk about biodiversity and climate change?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that coronavirus is already having a dramatic impact on our everyday life, and many jurisdictions have declared states of emergency. So in the short term, we need to carefully consider the relevance and appropriateness of our conservation messaging and be especially sensitive to the personal and social context of the individuals we are trying to engage.

However, it is worth being aware of situations in which conservation work and messaging continues to be needed. For example, with climate talks being postponed and the public focused on COVID-19, we run the risk of important actions being delayed or ignored. Our experience with the current crisis may even be a taste of what is to come in future climate crises.

Where do we want this story to go?

Looking long term, it now seems undeniable that coronavirus is changing the world, and the social context in which we continue to research and work will be different even if we eventually return ‘back to normal’.

As conservation scientists we don’t want to see COVID-19 create a new social and narrative context where taking action on issues like biodiversity conservation or climate change are even more difficult. As communicators, we need to think about where we want the story to go. Perhaps economic reform as a result of COVID-19 could also make progress towards a more sustainable future? Perhaps rather than bouncing back, we can bounce forward after coronavirus?

We can start to lay the foundation for these conversations now by avoiding comparing crises (e.g. by lamenting that biodiversity conservation hasn’t had the same response as COVID-19) and focus instead on needing kindness and cooperation, and scientific expertise. Some current responses to COVID-19 convey border control and security message frames, which don’t set a healthy narrative context for action for biodiversity conservation or climate change.

By focusing instead on humanity’s ability to band together in the face of an existential crisis, and asking people to continue to have courage, we allow the space for future calls for action to tackle climate change. By highlighting that we have been able to make changes to our way of life when called for, we increase public perceptions of our collective impact and strengthen our own self-belief that we can make meaningful change.

In doing this we foster a narrative of cooperation amidst a crisis, where we listen to the advice of experts, and are able to find solutions to complex and global problems, setting the stage for progress towards a more sustainable future.

Further reading recommendations

Key sources of information:

How to talk about COVID-19:

COVID-19, nature and the climate

Maintaining your mental health and adjusting to a new work and home life:

ICON at VicBioCon & ASC Conferences 2020

Over the past month a few of us ICON scientists have had the pleasure of attending, and presenting at multiple conferences, both located at Monash University in Clayton, Melbourne.

First up, the Victorian Biodiversity Conference 2020 on the 6th-7th of February was yet again a fantastic opportunity to network and learn more about the exciting local research and conservation work going on in Victoria. Congratulations to the organising committee (including ICON members, Katherine, Marco, Roshan, Emily, Freya and Matthew) for a great few days. Highlights included Dr Jen Martin‘s plenary on her journey to science communication, Amos Atkinson and Mick Bourke’s plenary on First Nation peoples’ perspectives on land and fire management, and seeing our fellow ICON members presenting their research!

In the Climate Change & Species Resilience session, Matthew presented on Landholder perceptions of climate change and its implications for biodiversity management on private lands.

In the Environmental Policy & Decision Making session, Mat presented on Identifying the role and capacity of local government to support private land conservation. Marco presented on Biodiversity and ecosystem services in strategic environmental assessment: A review of six Australian cases, and Roshan presented on Evaluating the impact of private protected areas (as well as a poster in the poster session!).

In the Science Communication & Community Engagement session, Emily presented on whether common names influence willingness to conserve threatened species, and Alex presented Five lessons for more effective biodiversity conservation message framing (as well as a poster!).

Last but not least, in the Urban Ecology & Conservation session, Katherine presented on Plant-insect dating in urban squares: exploring the influence of design on interactions.

Emily was also lucky enough to spend the following week at the Australian Science Communicators Conference 2020. Highlights included networking with a wide range of science communicators, Stephen Oliver’s plenary on broadcasting for impact, and Anthony Boxshall’s presentation on making impact with science in the Board and Executive rooms!

Emily also again presented her research on whether common names influence willingness to conserve threatened species.

 

Well done to all presenters and thank you to everyone who made these two conferences such a joy to attend!

ICON’s Highlights of 2019

It’s been a big year here at ICON Science. We’ve started new projects, celebrated completed PhDs, attended a variety of conferences and had the pleasure of hosting many visiting researchers. But we’ve had our share of frustrations, and many trying days battling with R code, Reviewer 2 and planetary despair.

But rather than letting the unticked boxes on our overly optimistic yearly to-do lists hang over our heads, we’re going to end the year celebrating our wins! In this blog post we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate our highlights for the year, ranging from accepted articles and theses (!), to the absolute joy of being outside in the field.

Nothing can really top finishing my PhD but also a few research papers came out this year that were the outcomes of fun, long term collaborations on privately protected area research in Australia (Selinske et al. 2019), and prediction in social-ecological systems (Travers et al. 2019). Another highlight was working with Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water, and Planning to start considering how we can better link the outcomes of behaviour change programs to biodiversity impacts. Finally, very pleased and grateful to be starting a postdoctoral research position in the new year! – Matthew S.

The highlight of my year is being back in the field with my trusty camera! Oh, how I love taking photos of plants and insects and I feel eternally grateful that I have a job that actually requires me to go out every two weeks into nature. I am one lucky duck. Below is a teaser of some of the little critters I have encountered this year, but stay tuned for an informative 2020 as we finish fieldwork and begin some proper deskwork time. – Freya

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Some of the critters Freya has captured so far out on fieldwork. (Images: Freya Thomas)

I started the year by walking the Overland Track in perfect weather – what a great way to start 2019! Two major highlights for me were being awarded an ARC Discovery Project with Sarah Bekessy, Andrew Knight and Atte Moilanen, and being appointed to DELWP’s Scientific Reference Group. The Discovery Project will investigate onsets as an alternative to offsets that could deliver on-site benefits and net gains for biodiversity. I’ve also really enjoyed the opportunity to be involved in the ecological planning for the Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal project, and was delighted to see Matthew Selinske become a Dr! – Georgia

Finally publishing my first first-author paper from my Master’s project (Gregg et al. 2019) was definitely a major highlight for me! That paper has been hanging over my head for a while! Receiving a DPIE/ESA Outstanding Outreach Award was also a great moment, and I’m excited to work on a school science project as part of that team for next year. Celebrating the #untweetables on Twitter during the week leading up to Threatened Species Day was also a nice moment to share with the entire ICON team. – Emily

I’m very satisfied with what I accomplished this year. I completed my PhD confirmation milestone and presented part of my research at the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) annual conference, where I also took a training course on Strategic Thinking for Sustainability and met researchers and professionals working on environmental assessment and biodiversity conservation. Hanging with the ICON mates has also been a lot of fun! Outside the PhD, completing a half and a full marathon were great moments in my year – Marco

My ongoing Melbourne Fieldwork this year has brought many interesting sights, sounds and new knowledge on the wonderful creatures inhabiting Melbourne green spaces, and my successful bid for the Green Our Rooftop Grants brings exciting new opportunities to apply what I have learnt in a different context! An additional highlight for me would definitely be having the opportunity to present my research on where native species belong in green space planning to an audience of architects, planners, artists and ecologists at The Nature of Cities Summit in Paris, and become part of the global conversation on how to build cities better for people and nature. – Katie

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Native wasp (Image: Katherine Berthon)

This year has been fantastic for me. Joined ICON group as a PhD student and now moving into the next year as a PhD candidate. Published 4 research papers as a co-author outside of the PhD project (Rimal et al., 2019), (Rahman et., 2019), (Rimal et al., 2019), (Sharma et a., 2019), further 2 more papers undergoing review. A protocol paper (a chapter for the PhD) is in review. This year was also about making friends, lot of beer drinking and chilling – for a long-term research collaboration. – Roshan

A major highlight of 2019 for me was us hosting a successful (even fun!) workshop to set out the objectives and target species of the Fisherman’s Bend ecology strategy, in which I was responsible for leading a creative storytelling exercise to draw robust objectives from a group of scientists, policymakers and community members. I also enjoyed having the chance to present the findings of a year of analysis to the European Commission in Brussels, outlining new tools and planning processes for greening in our seven partner cities in Europe and beyond. – Thami

On behalf of everyone here at ICON Science, Happy Holidays to all and we’ll see you in the New Year!

Xmas 2019

ICON Science’s Christmas Party at Portarlington | December 2019