Tom Wilkinson and Ben Harwood from Public Affairs talk us through the online series created in lockdown to help bring staff closer to the research tackling COVID-19
Like many people, Campaign Content Manager Ben Harwood and Creative Media Manager Tom Wilkinson have had to make drastic changes to the way they work over the last few months. In normal circumstances, Tom is responsible for all things video in Public Affairs, and helping people across the University with video-related challenges; that’s everything from promotional content about research to video news releases, animated displays for museums, sending footage to broadcasters and so on. Ben can usually be found working on the next campaign theme, including the research, design and content, including identifying the key audiences and the best ways to reach them.
What are COVID Conversations?
Ben: What started out as helping to gather content for the COVID-19 research pages quickly became a sole focus on two series: Oxford at Home and COVID Conversations. Oxford at Home is an engaging series of online tutorials hosted by our world-class lecturers and COVID Conversations is a collection of short talks with scientists who are driving forward research into COVID-19, including the development of a vaccine, drug and antibody testing and investigating how effective masks can be.
Tom: As the world’s best medical school, and more besides, it’s absolutely right that Oxford is at the forefront of fighting COVID-19. This was our way of giving the researchers a two-way channel to explain their work to the rest of the University – and now the general public, too.
Ben: We were challenged to show the variety of research going on; the vaccine studies are more widely known but it has been really interesting to take that and think about how we could branch out. For example, how do we include research into mental health, misinformation and inequalities? These are all things that COVID-19 and pandemics affect – things that as individuals we might not think about every day, but we’re researching them right here! In some cases, researchers have stopped their existing work to research something else entirely, all in the drive to help the world understand COVID-19 better than we do today.
Crunching the numbers
COVID Conversations and Oxford at Home reached 4,038,829 over both series, from 25 episodes.
In our new circumstances, how have you found setting up the interviews? Have you encountered any technical difficulties?
Ben: (laughs) I abandon all hope at the gate at the thought of getting all of this technologically set up. Without Tom, it wouldn’t exist. I can organise as much as I want but no one would see anything if it weren’t for Tom.
Tom: I thought it would be harder to manage but it’s all been pretty smooth. If we had wanted to do something like this five years ago we probably wouldn’t have been able to, but it’s amazing how fast technology is evolving – even while we’re working. For the most part, it’s about event management: making sure the speaker is well set up and the lighting is good, and hoping that we don’t lose our connection. Ben is great at all those logistics.
What have you learnt?
We’ve learnt a lot about the steps in between the headlines – not just big research findings, or tales from hospital wards, but the difficult and complicated work of building lab and trials infrastructure to do excellent research. It’s true what they say that overnight successes are decades in the making…
The whole world has a new vocabulary. We’re using words that we’ve never heard before or used that often with such ease now. For example, I had no idea what ‘serology’ was until we started the series (it’s the production of and research into antibodies). Serology tests are blood-based tests that can be used to identify whether people have been exposed to a particular pathogen by looking at their immune response – in case you were interested.
What do you like about working with each other?
Ben: Tom is incredibly calm and reassuring – he’s confident himself and gives confidence in the way that he works. I get anxious about live broadcasts, but Tom is a calming presence.
Tom: The flipside of that is Ben’s energy. He keeps things moving, he keeps the project progressing, you go away to make a cup of tea and find five emails from Ben in your inbox chasing people for things. He creates great new initiatives, like the True Planet and Futuremakers campaigns that he and Steve Pritchard introduced, which highlight the diversity of the University’s environmental work – those two campaign names are part of the everyday vocab around the office now. It’s the same with COVID Conversations and Oxford at Home; he’s someone who makes memorable things happen – a real innovator.
See examples of previous live talks from both series on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube