Hi Guys!

foto By Sannah van Balen

This week I conducted my first ever interview! At SCK•CEN, the communication with the public regarding ionizing radiation is currently being studied. There appears to be incompleteness in the knowledge transferred from scientists to the public (often through the media). Often, the term “radiation” triggers an association to nuclear energy and power stations while many other applications exist that involve ionizing radiation – just take a look at various medical techniques in hospitals! So when the public was asked whether they would like to receive more information concerning the risks of ionizing radiation the answer was affirmative. Consequently, the quest for better communication with the public started. Since the media is one of the platforms through which science is communicated, I was suggested to contact Ms. Fiona Fox, founding director of the Science Media Centre (SMC) in the UK. The SMC is an initiative started by the scientific community to respond to controversial news stories (e.g. the autism-related controversy on the MMR vaccine). While the scientific community has no difficulty in reporting on new discoveries and research, Ms. Fox explained that a clear weakness was present when it comes to responding to stories that have already been labeled controversial. The SMC facilitates the communication between the two fields to ensure that the articles will contain the most accurate and correct scientific information.

When facilitating such communication between the media and the scientific community, various challenges appear. How will you get scientists motivated to be involved? When I asked this question to Ms. Fox she referred to a previous case in which the social attitude to genetically modified food became incredibly negative even though the mass media was not given accurate information. Due to this extreme negative reaction of the public, the research in this new field was diminished. This case study clearly shows a direct cause-and-effect situation in which the lack of information results in a one-sided debate and the attempt to stop further research. The fact that in this case the topic was genetically modified plants does not mean that it could not be repeated in the case of ionising radiation. Ionising radiation comes with many risks and uncertainties; communicating about these risks couldprevent their social amplification through the media and thereby providing a path to further applications rather than blocking future research.

Public surveys organized by SCK•CEN have shown the various levels of trust the public has with regards to the media, scientists, industry and decision-makers. A clear difference was detected between the confidence people had in scientists and industry regardless of whether the scientists were associated to an institution. So my second question to Fiona Fox was how this link between scientists and their corresponding institutions, whether it be industry or university, affected their ability to communicate with the media with regards to conflicts of interest and trust.  Ms. Fox reminded me that the scientists participating in the Science Media Center are not involved for self-promotion; they are requested to comment on hot topics in the media at a specific instant. The cycle usually starts with the media asking for an expert opinion on a topic; the SMC will ask an expert in their network to comment and reply to journalists. The center does not hold any specific position in controversial topics besides being “pro-science”, which seems logical considering it’s a science-based initiative.

When looking at the funding mechanism of the SMC, it becomes clear why the trust and confidence in the organization has remained very high. Each funder may only donate to a certain extent to prevent any type of overpowering financial control. Another interesting point in the distribution of funding is that the media contributes very little financially. Since the print media is practically dead there is no money to donate. In Belgium, the media holds a relatively low level of trust compared to other sectors. Having such a financial system could return the trust to the media as they would regain the position as mediator between science and public rather than an independent money-making business. Having trustworthy sources and communicators would increase the interest and understanding of scientific topics, including ionizing radiation.

In general my rather short interview with Fiona Fox enhanced my understanding of how scientific topics could be introduced and well-explained to the public. The next step could be to set up a similar initiative in Belgium to promote the distribution of accurate and trust-worthy information focusing on ionizing radiation.

I hope you enjoyed my summary/discussion following the interview with Ms. Fiona Fox! I only have one week left at SCK•CEN so soon I will have to pass on this blog to the next writer. I hope you enjoyed my posts as much as I enjoyed sharing my experience with you!

Vele groetjes,

Hi Everyone!



By Sannah van Balen

I know it’s been a while since I wrote a blogpost but I’ve just been so busy! Besides helping out with the organization of the RICOMET conference, I have attended two conferences in Brussels- one on ‘Public Communication on Nuclear Emergencies’, a seminar of the Belgian Society for Radiation Protection and one organized by the Society for Risk Analysis Europe- SRA-E Benelux Meeting. It was such an experience as these were my first conferences EVER. I enjoyed listening to the presentations and was intrigued to hear the manner in which certain discussions were raised following the questions of the participants.

Furthermore, I helped out on a project regarding the framing of articles on nuclear energy by the media. It was interesting to see how the media portrayed an update in the nuclear field; whether they framed it as a positive thing or a negative thing and what the most common words/themes were. Every Tuesday I joined classes about risk and crisis communication related to the nuclear sector. When focusing on the media aspect of such communication it is clear to see that newspaper agencies communicate about risks by framing an article one way or the other, thereby maximising the attentiveness of the readers and influencing their risk perception. The journalists cannot influence how you think about a matter but they do decide what you are thinking as the media exposes the public to certain issues.

It is crazy to think that I have already finished more than half of my internship! I have learnt so much. I always knew that the integration of social sciences and humanities is important in technical fields but having this experience and focusing in particular on an SSH aspect such as communication has highlighted this need. Living in a democratic society results in the need to inform the public on matters in the nuclear field so that progress can be rewarded and stimulated whilst the risks are understood and emergency preparedness can be elevated. In order for this communication to go successfully, a good relationship with the media must be established so that the workings of the media, industry and other stakeholders can be fully appreciated and put to its best use. It is not only the acceptance of the public that is important in the nuclear field but also the understanding of the risks and emergency planning so that these can be executed as swiftly as possible in the case of an emergency. This crisis communication is another aspect that I have been introduced to various times during the internship. There are many challenges in this field including the lack of simulation exercises, the possible misinterpretations by the media and the lack of confidence of the public. I do hope I can keep learning about these challenges and eventually participate in turning these challenges into opportunities.

So in a nutshell, my time here has been superb; and I know that these last couple of weeks will be just as motivating and dynamic!

PS: The presentations from the Seminar on ‘Public Communication in Nuclear Emergencies’ can be found via the link http://www.bvsabr.be/events.asp?ID=4

First Day Excitement


Hi everyone,

My name is Sannah van Balen and I have just had my first day as an intern at SCK.CEN (exciting times!!). I have been asked to contribute to this blog and share my experiences with you during my time at the company. I am a graduate from the University of Edinburgh with a BSc in physics and will continue my studies at the University of Cambridge in October, where I will be doing an MPhil in Nuclear Energy. I am particularly thrilled to start the masters as it combines the technological and management aspects of the industry.

As a girl obsessed with travelling and exploring new cultures, I have been moving around ever since I left high school. I have had the luck to spend an Erasmus year in Sydney and do an internship in Shanghai! Right now my adventure is taking place super close to my hometown at SCK.CEN, where I am working mainly on the preparations for the RICOMET Conference of 2016, together with people from many different countries. This year will be the second conference in the light of risk perception, communication and ethics of exposures to ionizing radiation and it will take place in Bucharest, Romania. The conference is very interesting as it draws together different stakeholders with different opinions and perspectives (from students to doctors to politicians). You can find out more about the focal points and details of this years conference on the website http://ricomet2016.sckcen.be/en

Today I have been sitting in on a conference call between some of the organizers and I have been slowly getting a better idea of what must be taken into account when organizing such a conference. It is all very exciting as the registration for the conference is opening up on the 12th of February already! There is still much to be done and I am looking forward to providing a helping hand in whatever way I can.

3. How to get started


Matthias Meersschaert

 Belgian Nuclear Forum |@NucleairForum | @ForumNucleaire

Now how to become an active tweeter? First rule of thumb/great add-on : you don’t have to be tweeting and pushing out messages all the time yourself.

Go to http://www.twitter.com, take a person or organization that you know/that you are interested in and see what they tweet about. Check what is trending and familiarize yourself with the difference between notifications and messages, tweeting and retweeting, and find out the difference between @BBC, .@BBC and #BBC before you start your new life as an active tweeter (plenty of tutorials can be found online).


  1. How to increase your popularity, how to get heard?


If you decide to start following people, don’t do it all on day 1. Starting to follow 500 interesting people at a moment when you haven’t posted anything yourself is not a good idea. The reason is this : anyone who gets a new follower, is inclined to check what that person/account is about. If that person only finds an empty account when checking your Twitter page, he/she will be less inclined to start following you. If however (e.g. after 6 months of active presence and after having started to tweet interesting posts) you’ll start following an interesting account, he/she checks your accounts and concludes you are an interesting source for him/her, chances are higher that he/she will follow you, and (if that person or organization is an authority in the field), this will positively contribute to your online credibility.


Your credibility will further increase if these influential persons/Twitter accounts one day will retweet you (which means your message will be read by all of his/her Twitter followers). Trust me, it takes time and patience but the day will come and it will be a reward for the hard work.


Another highlight will come when Twitter (the company behind the newsfeed) sees that you are credible and trustworthy source of information, and they will assign you a ‘certified’ label. My organisation’s Twitter page has been granted this certified label by Twitter (mainly obtained by tweeting consequently about one topic – i.e. the nuclear technology, in our case).



2. Decide who you want to be (and be consequent about it)


This brings me to my next topic: decide who you wish to be on Twitter, and behave accordingly. In my case: as a trade organization for the nuclear industry, interested in all sort of topics related to the nuclear technology. After a while (three years in our case), Twitter recognized us as a trustworthy and reliable source of information, hence the ‘certified’ label. This comes with some benefits, as it can make a topic trending (see above) in case you are tweeting about it.


3. Try to monitor everything

 This is off course an extremely challenging thing to do and, strictly speaking, impossible, given the number of tweets being published every second. Obviously, you won’t be following everyone and you don’t have to. Select critically who to follow, by checking their Twitter account and see what they’ve already published. If this information is useful to you, there’s a high chance that what they will publish in the future will also be of relevance for you and your community.



Luckily, there are also tools that can really help to get to the relevant messages and tweets in the clutter and dense jungle that Twitter is. Tweetdeck for instance is a great monitoring tool that gives you a good overview of relevant messages, notifications etcetera for you and your organization.

Try to have this tool open on your (or the person or people in charge for Twitter within your organization) computer all day. Check it at least 3 to 4 times a day. With tools such as Tweetdeck it should not be too difficult to track the online conversation and latest updates.


Why is this important? Twitter is a real time medium. It might happen that your Twitter account is mentioned in a Twitter conversation, that other people are feeding in and that the whole thing is evolving in minutes or hours. Be ready to interact, 12 hours can be an eternity on Twitter (well during the day, that is, when somebody involves you in a conversation late at night it is OK to answer the next morning – but better even to indicate in your profile between which hours you are present online and ready to interact, engage, respond).

4. Gain credibility

This point is maybe the most difficult one, but also an obvious one. It will follow from the above points. If you try to be precise, punctual and relevant in what you post; if you respond to people quickly and correctly; if you interact with the right stakeholders and if you try (if only for yourself) to become a trustworthy source of information, you will gain the credibility that you deserve. But it will take time. And it is never over or established. Being heard and proving your credibility is an ongoing thing. Try to post at least 2 to 3 messages per day (tweets or retweets). The moment you stop tweeting is the moment that you will start losing followers – and credibility.


5.  Continue to learn and grow

As mentioned just here, the process is never over : Twitter never stops to evolve, the conversation with stakeholders will never stop, news will continue to rise.

Try to keep a finger at the pulse of all of this, and the future will tell where it will take your organization, what your online conversation with stakeholders will lead to offline, and where future advances will take Twitter (or future competitors, that might take over Twitter’s current place and importance).

But starting / enhancing your online presence today is a good starting point. Despite initial opposition or hesitation by our members, it’s proven to be a nice add-on of which the advantages definitely outweight the disadvantages (I’d have to think long to find some, other than the fact that it is time-intensive).


Good luck!




2. Why my organization is on Twitter (and why you should, too)


by Matthias Meersschaert, Belgian Nuclear Forum


It was only three years ago that my organization (and myself) started to be active on Twitter – and familiarize myself with the phenomenon; but it has been a great (and overall positive) experience so far. Here is why we decided to open an account, and become an active publisher of tweets :

Twitter is a truly social medium, ideal for two-directional conversation (instead of top-down one-directional communication)

  1. Twitter offers an easy way to push out news in real time
  2. Twitter has proven to be the quickest news medium nowadays
  3. It’s the perfect medium to reach an interested and specifically targeted audience

Let me elaborate these points in further detail in what follows

 Twitter is a truly social medium, ideal for two-directional conversation (instead of top-down one-directional communication)

 Like other social media (as mentioned above), Twitter allows for a truly open communication with your audience. In other words, if people have a second thought or disagree, there is a good chance that they will interact and get back you. If they agree with you, there is a chance that they will ‘retweet’ your message (which means that it is shared with their respective followers, thus enhancing an ever wider pick-up).

However, the fact that it is a social and pretty open medium, where people can react and disagree should not worry you. If people respond or interact, you or not obliged to respond. If a response to you is provocative or false, reactions will come (and it is not necessarily up to you to react – other people on Twitter could it as well). So nothing to worry about. When we first suggested to become active on Twitter, some of our members were hesitant, thinking that we would spend all day (and night) dealing with negative feedback. They were right and wrong : yes it is a medium that needs constant monitoring (but there are great tools to streamline and monitor the information overflow on Twitter – see later); but no you are not exposed and overwhelmed by feedback constantly.

  1.  Being on Twitter is an easy way to push out news in real time

Your audience is there, listening and waiting for you to publish news. News that comes in a very easy way: as Twitter only allows for 140 characters in one message, you need to be brief and to the point. That said, Twitter allows to include hyperlinks. So the medium allows for different strategies.

If, for instance, you have a very brief and quick announcement to make, Twitter allows you (by its mode of operation) to be short and snappy. So no need for a formal page setting, boilerplates and signatures as you would do in an official press release or news announcement. If, however, you do want to be detailed, and if you have a press release at hand, Twitter allows you to publish a tweet, and include a hyperlink to the full press release (under the condition that it is available online, e.g. on your organization’s website).

2. Twitter has proven to be the quickest news medium nowadays

 When news is happening and going viral in real time, so should you. Let’s hope no serious accidents happen, but if so it is essential to be pushing out news in real time, asap. From experience, it turns out Twitter is the quickest news medium, and the easiest one to push out news updates (see higher).

When major events happen somewhere in the world, it’s been Twitter that was the first medium to tell me, before BBC World or CNN were ready to respond. There are two ways to pick up a news item from Twitter, before it becomes real news. Either your Twitter feed, and the accounts you are following (ideally to include BBC and CNN as well), have all started to spread the same news on their Twitter account, which normally is a good indicator that the rumours are true and that the news is really news. Either (and often coinciding with the previous point) the trending topics on Twitter (a feed indicating which topics are being tweeted most, referred to by the use of a specific hashtag) indicate what everybody is talking about – in other words, what has become news.

So let’s take the worst case scenario : a major nuclear incident or accident. If you’ve picked up rumours about something happening the world, Twitter will probably be the quickest medium to report on it, so go there to find more first-hand information (if you are less in a hurry you can await the BBC or CNN reports and news updates). And in case you are the press officer and you(r organization) are the one who ought to report on an incident, do it asap on Twitter and do it regularly – all media outlets and everybody else who is interested can follow the updates there – if only for practical reasons. The alternative is that you are literally overwhelmed by a tsunami of phone calls. Answering them can in that case almost be as challenging as dealing with the actual crisis, thus leaving you no time with what you are supposed to do (gathering information on the crisis). Being active on Twitter, and having key journalists following you there, avoids duplicating efforts : one tweet can inform your key journalists just as much as 20 telephone calls to each individual one of them.

 3. Twitter is the perfect medium to reach an interested and specifically targeted audience

 You are not on Twitter because not of your personal peers is on Twitter? Think again, and check your key journalists, media outlets that you surf to everyday, international organizations that you have a (electronic) newsletter subscription to …. Chances are high that (almost) all of them are active on Twitter. And for this reason, Twitter is really a treasure. Why?

Not everybody is using Twitter. Looking in my own personal circle, I can count the people who are active on Twitter on one hand. That said, almost all of the people, stakeholders and organizations that matter for me, ARE active on Twitter. And here’s the real added value of Twitter (whether you are active as a published of information or just as follower – another added value of Twitter, more about that below) : the organizations that matter for your business, and the key journalists, and the key decision makers … mostly ALL of them are on Twitter. This has two major advantages : by following them, you’ll see what they are concerned about and interested in, and vice versa (ideally) when they are following you, you’ll get your messages directly across to the relevant audience, and you can be sure that it is picked up by the right audience.


Nuclear communication in 2015 ~ Why you need to be on social media

Portraits. avril 2015, photos vivianhertz.be

Matthias Meersschaert

forum@NucleairForum   @ForumNucleaire

 By means of introduction, my name is Matthias Meersschaert and I work with the Belgian Nuclear Forum, a trade organization representing the major industry players and scientific organizations that work with the nuclear technology in Belgium. Our mission : to raise awareness for the technology towards different stakeholders (ranging from the general public to politicians, decision makers and journalists), feed them with facts and figures about the technology, and actively engage in the public debate on nuclear technologies & energy.

After several years of eye-catching, confident and slightly provocative (at least considered by some) campaigns, the Belgian Nuclear Forum is a well-known name and people in Belgium are nowadays better aware of the advantages (and risks) of the nuclear technology in their daily lives. Some examples of recent communication campaigns (in Dutch and French only) :

4  5 3 26

These are times where a proper and credible communication strategy (whether it is as company, NGO, trade organization, political party etcetera) entails a truly open and dialogue with your audience(s) and different target groups. Not as a top-down one direction communication flow, but as a proper 2-way conversation. As part of this strategy, and as part of my organization’s commitment to communicate transparently about the nuclear technology, it is now absolutely mandatory to be present on social media.

Indeed, this last decade saw the rise of social media (also nicknamed web 2.0), where the general public takes the role of editor and author of visual and textual web content, a content that varies from very informal (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, ….) to more serious (Twitter, Wikipedia, NewsMonkey, …) although the lines are somewhat blurred and difficult to strictly separate (with many official & serious media & news channels being increasingly present on informal social media).

In times of real time news gathering, seven days a week and 24 hours per day, social media offer a unique platform to be pushing out updates and news items, and to get your message across to a continuously increasing audience (e.g. Facebook, which is estimated to have over 1 billion subscribers, i.e. one in seven people in the world).

One social medium which we believe is of great value for real time stakeholder communication, is Twitter. I am not sure to what extent subscribers to this blog are familiar with Twitter, so I’ll use this platform to share some general thoughts, insights, and suggestions (in this and following posts). For those who are already familiar with this, apologies for the repetition, but I would welcome your own experience as comments and further suggestions, assuming it will be of help and added value for those who aren’t as experienced as you.

What I’ll write below (in next week’s posts) is from my own professional experience, and explained to you from my own perspective (as a trade organization within the nuclear field) – but it can mostly be generalized and applied to other sectors as well.

Good luck!

Matthias Meersschaert


RICOMET and the power of conversation

Peter Rickwood  Atomic Reportersby Peter Rickwood

A former colleague, a nuclear scientist who is a safety specialist open, curious, remarkably competent, now the manager of an international programme, insists there must be a means of measuring the results of engaging journalists and – if all works out – from the stories they publish.

What is the outcome of what we are doing? How we can determine we are effectively communicating with stakeholders? How do we assess the results to improve future activities? How do we measure performance? These are among his questions.

When there’s money, media monitoring services can provide a paper trail of what has been published. But I’ve had fruitless discussions attempting to dissuade him from the notion that beyond such numbers there is any device for measuring impact.

If I’m correct, and perhaps there’s an algorithm that will prove me wrong, I think this goes to the heart of journalism and I’m bipolar about it – finding it both frustrating and encouraging. It’s frustrating because rarely was I able to find out if the reporting I did was even read, encouraging because not all activities we undertake can be quantified.

It is also the conclusion I drew from the International Conference: RICOMET 2015, June 15-17 in Brdo Slovenia, that far from being able to apply the tools of results based management to communicating knowledge about exposure to ionising radiation and risk perception, the way forward is messier.

Those of you at the conference know that I’m speaking on behalf of journalists, the constituency my organization Atomic Reporters tries to represent.

Put simply, for journalists who may be ill-equipped to cover the subject, there is a need for engagement and above all an active conversation. Machine based learning – perhaps not the best description – will certainly not suffice.

I’m also reminded that the other side of the coin is Goodhart’s law, that a performance metric is only useful as a performance metric as long as it isn’t used as a performance metric.

The term opportunity tends to get over used but effective communication, as we heard at RICOMET, does require listening. And I am persuaded that sustaining a conversation with journalists may yield more results than merely delivering information.

Here we could achieve an outcome – a fresh voice – from a marriage between journalists, specialists in communicating complexities, with technical and scientific specialists who may be at a loss articulating their own subjects.

Risk is inherent in the development of any new relationship. But operating in a silo – a tendency of the nuclear community, from risk to non-proliferation – is not an option.

RICOMET was a welcome relief from some of the conferences and meetings of nuclear specialists I’ve recently participated in as a representative of Atomic Reporters because it involved journalists in its discussions.

Too often journalists are locked out of key debates while the discussants complain their concerns are not being heard.

Atomic Reporters brings specialists and journalists together in workshops and other fora focused on nuclear technology, science and policy. It is perhaps surprising but there is keen interest and enthusiasm from participants in this neglected branch of journalism. This augurs well for engaging news media.

RICOMET demonstrated the rewards of holding the conversation. It needs to be sustained.

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