All aboard the bird flu bandwagon

Last week the inevitable happened and bird flu arrived in the UK. After originating in the Far East, the H5N1 virus has spread slowly but surely westward until it eventually killed a swan that was washed ashore in a small Scottish fishing village.1_2

Cue the media ignoring every other news story of the day as they focused on the breaking news. With such media attention every press office in the country was itching to get in on the story. The National Farmers Union and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds somehow confirmed that the solitary swan had died of bird flu before the Scottish Executive, which was testing the bird at a lab. The Food Standards Agency issued advice that all chicken should be cooked thoroughly and people handling poultry should wash their hands afterwards — advice that should be observed regardless of where the latest outbreak of bird flu has occurred.

Bird flu has the potential to be catastrophic for British farming, an industry already hard hit by Foot-and-Mouth disease and BSE. However, the media’s focus has been on the threat bird flu poses to humans and the numbers that could die in a global pandemic. If (and it’s a big if according to some experts) bird flu mutates into a virus that spreads from human to human, then the type of media attention the UK recently witnessed will be warranted. If that mutation does occur, be it in the UK, Turkey or in Vietnam, let’s hope communications professionals act to reduce the pandemic’s impact on public health, rather than simply an opportunity to get their organization’s name in the news.

12 thoughts on “All aboard the bird flu bandwagon

  1. Jimbo –
    The profession of journalism is supposed to be about reporting a fair and balanced story without bias and hype; not about capturing and retaining viewers as you stated. Therein lies the problem with today’s media.
    Reporters have been brainwashed by their corporate parents and turned into a pack of ratings-obsessed salespeople that are hell bent on topping the competition at all costs. Because every news program must answer to a boss with powerful and unforgiving shareholders, reporters no longer enjoy the luxury of reporting the news as it was intended.
    I agree with Carl – the news media are largely sensational, biased and focused on exacerbating the problem to instill fear in their viewers, something that has been proven to attract and retain viewers. That’s not journalism, plain and simple.

  2. i-boy:
    congratulations, moron, you’re officially part of the multitude that thinks that a person or an area’s merit is based on the performance of its sports teams.
    i knew you had it in ya.

  3. Jeez…Mr. Cody, can’t even cut me slack as the Mets are once again winning! Jimbo- how your Phillies doin?

  4. Jimbo: Truth be told, I left the newsroom behind because the pay was horrendously low, the hours were horrible (i.e. midnight to 5am) and I found reporters to be an unbelievably jaded, world-weary lot. I-man nothwithstanding, I’ve found PR people to be much more upbeat and friendly than our peers on the media side. Enough about bird flu, though,how about some comments on the Judas blog?????

  5. i see your points, steve, carl and i-boy. and, i understand that ethics and morals should be used when delivering the news. but, wasn’t it you, repman, that left the news side of the business becuase you couldn’t find any of the two in the newsroom?
    thankfully, i haven’t seen much coverage of the story on either cnbc of bloomberg today (split flat-panel in my office – it’s freaking awesome). so, the news went back to its “regular” pace.
    still, i can’t fault the outlets (even weather broadcasters) for going ape shit over stories that are mostly hype. i mean, after all, they are in the business of capturing & retaining viewers…right? and if they weren’t in that business, who the hell would i pitch my clients to?
    does this blog take interviews?
    all best,

  6. I think it is pretty safe to say the examples listed in the blog didn’t come about because the media called them up for some expert opinion.
    Again, you’re right but missing the point. Yes the media is largely responsible for hyping up bird flu, but regardless of this PR pros should act professionally and responsibly when contributing to the story.
    If a bird expert wants to give (or is sought out to give) advice on what to do when you find a dead bird then great. On the other hand I think the Food Standards Agency issuing guidelines to wash your hands when handling poultry is more than a little unnecessary.

  7. In your blog, you ended by saying: “let’s hope communications professionals act to reduce the pandemic’s impact on public health, rather than simply an opportunity to get their organization’s name in the news.” Thsi really doesn’t fall on the communications pros, this falls on the media covering the news. PR Pros are generally like sharks when they smell blood- if the media calls for an “expert,” they all have a rolodex full of em to offer…

  8. As I was the one that drew Repman’s attention to this issue I think its only fair I come back on some of these comments:
    I think the difference here is about acting responsibly. You’re right, ACT opportunities are part and parcel of client service for most PR agencies, and in house PR departments for that matter. However, blurting out comment on the back of one dead bird flu diseased swan simply to capitalise on public health fears is irresponsible and not helpful to the public understanding of the issue.

  9. Boys: you’re missing the point that Carl “Union Jack” Foster had in mind when he first suggested this blog to me. It’s not about capitalizing on breaking news. Rather, it’s about the ethics and morals of escalating a crisis before said crisis actually exists. In other words, how much information is appropriate in this case? Should the U.K. press make it sound like “the end of the world as we know it,” as we’re suggesting they are in the blog? Or should they be communicating the potential pandemic in more down-to-earth, measured tones? Their alarmist views are not too dissimilar from my friends at the Weather Channel, who love to whip up a total frenzy in anticipation of any apporaching storm, real or imagined…..

  10. Breaking News…hell just froze over!!
    Seeking experts available for comment…

  11. I can’t believe I am about to do this, but I am going to have to agree with this Medical Supply Executive guy.
    RepMan, as you know, most news is cyclical (let’s use the calendar and stories pitched regarding where we are on it: Mother’s Day, Dad’s & Grad’s, Tax Tips, etc. And then there’s the quarterly earnings season). The fact that something “newsy” comes across the wire (that also has the chance to affect millions of people) deserves to be headline news.
    I don’t think you can fault the companies, agencies, or associations for jumping on this instance. My two cents.

  12. Isn’t this pretty much what Peppercom’s ACT program is about- making your clients “Available for Comment Today.” And don’t most, if not all PR firms try to get their clients “hits” by making them available to comment on breaking news? A bit confused here….