Swine flu spreads too fast for marketing

image The UK government has taken a largely traditional marketing approach with the “Catch It, Bin It, Kill It” campaign to inform the public about personal hygiene matters in the face of the swine flu pandemic. 

One of the problems with this strategy is that speed of response is impacted by the time needed to produce materials (adverts, direct mail, posters etc).  Likewise such campaigns are costly – just do the maths on mailing every home in the UK.

In comparison, public relations has to respond immediately to emerging issues and crises. Reuters noted incidents of the disease in the US on 21 April, whilst the timeline of swine flu shows the first WHO Disease Outbreak Notice was issued on 24 April, with the Health Protection Agency published its first press release on the outbreak the same day.

The story quickly led to front page headlines and broadcast coverage but the UK government’s advertising did not begin until 29 April – which is surprising as it is using a recycled campaign initially launched in 2007.  Indeed, the information leaflet is not due to be distributed until this coming week

Although the made-for-television adverts are also on YouTube, could more have been done to pro-actively use online communications for engaging with public concerns?

An easy to recall web address should have been available and promoted as part of public statements given to the media.  Of course, the obvious www.swineflu.com and other derivatives are already taken, but I haven’t heard a web address cited in any of the news coverage (and only a phone number is given in the advertising).

Such “dark sites” are not a new idea (see Ed Lee‘s 101 on the topic).  There are two relevant sites: Direct Gov claims to have “everything you need to know” and you can opt for RSS and mobile phone text updates .  The NHS also has useful information on its website.  And, both do come up as sponsored links under Google and YouTube searches for “swine flu”.

There is a lack of use of multi-media on both sites (beyond reproducing the tv and radio adverts) and there seems to have been little attempt by the UK authorities to use social networking sites – despite the fact that Facebook alone is reported to have 17 million unique users in the UK.  Several swine flu Facebook groups have been set up (one of which has over 44,000 members), but these seem to have been started by members of the public.

The US Center for Disease Control and and Prevention apparently has recognised the need to use social media as comprehensively as possible, including video and Twitter. Again, the swineflu Twitter name does not appear to have been taken by an official organisation, even though Tweets have only been made on this since 23 April.

Another thing that needs to be more evident in such emerging crises is ensuring the media consistently provide links to the official channels on their sites.  Here, the UK is doing better: the Wall Street Journal lacks any link to the US CDC information, but the BBC has links to both this and the UK’s HPA.

Any crisis management plan must include online and social media these days, whilst ensuring standard media relations activities are anticipated and managed.  But it is questionable whether traditional marketing has any place in the crisis comms toolkit – unless it can move much faster.

After all, by the time most residents in the UK receive their swine flu leaflet this week, incidents of the disease will undoubtedly be in decline

image Indeed, I wonder how many UK residents still have a copy of the “Preparing for Emergencies” leaflet that was distributed in an £8 million campaign back in 2004. 

Interestingly, one of the first links that comes up for a Google search of Preparing for Emergencies is a spoof: http://www.preparingforemergencies.co.uk/.

Maybe if the UK government had taken a longer-term strategy back then, there would be a memorable one-stop site which could have built some equity and a reputation for the first place to go for crisis public information, with links and embedded multi-media to accommodate any emerging scenario.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

9 thoughts on “Swine flu spreads too fast for marketing”

  1. I’m not sure if you’re making a distinction between public relations and marketing. Or, are you saying that response has been too slow, period?

    What we’re seeing in the global responses is that it’s too slow and, in many ways, there is just no way any governmental agency could possible respond quickly enough in today’s age of slashed budgets and general overworkedness.

    Public relations, marketing – indeed any and all forms of communication – must be much more efficient than ever before.

  2. I was distinguishing between PR, which has to respond quickly, and marketing which generally is not so responsive. I was also intending to reflect on how online/social media offers opportunities for rapid response and to raise questions about whether and how this is being used.

    I tend to agree that pressures on organisations make it harder for organisations to respond quickly, but as you say, the use of communications (marketing, PR, etc) has to be more efficient. I think that means at the least questioning, if not abandoning, the traditional marketing tools which certainly seem too slow for the current swine flu situation.

  3. Heather, I’m curious as to why you chose to refer to it as “swine flu” throughout the post, whereas the World Health Organization requested (last Thursday) that it be referred to hereon by its scientific name A: H1N1.

    Of course this is, *in part*, due to the lobbying done by the various pork producers and marketing boards, as stakeholders. But the precedent was set when avian flu became (scientifically) identified by the WHO as SARS. (Even though I don’t believe poultry producers did much lobbying about that name change.) As you are aware, I am a city-survivor of SARS.

    Possibly of interest is the Toronto Star article (that I tweeted about on Sunday, in response to a comment on a Media Bullseye show that changing the name was “PR spin.”) Pigs, viruses and politics: http://tr.im/kmcd

  4. Judy – the “PR spin” obviously passed me by as the news media are still calling it swine flu in the UK.

    The new emphasis on the scientific name A: H1N1 is interesting in SEO terms as I doubt many ordinary people will be searching on Google or elsewhere by that. In which case, aren’t there serious questions about the provision of information to the public if the most obvious search term is being obfuscated? Clearly this will mean that people run the risk of accessing unofficial information more easily.

    The Toronto Star article is interesting, and although rather emotional in tone, as a vegetarian of 25+ years, it would not surprise me if poor animal husbandry doesn’t cause health issues. But it doesn’t seem reasonable to compare the centuries’ old practices of small farmers in China with factories comprising nearly 1 million pigs in Mexico and elsewhere.

    This industrialisation of food production seems to me to be as dangerous as the industrialisation of the banking sector has proven to be.

  5. That’s rather distressing that the UK media has failed to identify the virus by its more scientic name. Perhaps that’s because the UK populace and industries seem to be relatively unaffected to date.

    That is not the case in Canada. (And the majority of the Canadian media–particularly television and radio–has been quick to adopt the H1N1 name in its extensive coverage.)

    Margaret Chan, current general director, of the World Health Organization, was educated in Canada. She knows full well the impact decisions rendered by the WHO can have on countries and economies: such as the travel ban to Toronto it issued during SARS, which devastated our tourism sector for several years.

    Using the term “swine flu” is having a similar impact on the pork producers’ industry, particularly in Alberta. (Which, of course, was the home of the lone “Mad Cow” calf case, which saw Canadian beef banned for two years to many countries.)

    I don’t see it as “PR spin” to be sensitive to these issues. I see it as science leading the way, with a more appropirate, fact-based name for the virus. The impact of paranoia-based decisions, by countries and individuals, impacts lives and jobs. This during a global recession to boot.

    Note today’s “Trending Topics” on twitter. HIN1 has held steady, if not rising. Ergo, there are significant individuals who know to search under the proper scientific name.

    Trending Topics:
    Happy Cinco De Mayo
    Swine Flu
    Feliz Cinco

  6. I haven’t heard that the use of “swine flu” has affected consumption of pig products in the UK as there hasn’t been any implication that it can be caught here from animals or handling meat. We generally tend to use everyday terms eg bird flu, foot and mouth, and mad cow disease rather than the scientific ones (although I do like the term: bovine spongiform encephalitis). Perhaps it’s our tabloid nature.

    Being sensitive to issues is fine, as is the use of scientific names, provided this is not a strategy intended to obfuscate and spin away from recognition that industry does have to be accountable for problems that its practices caused.

    Science and facts need to be used to inform the public – and if that means conveying that food products or travel to certain countries should be avoided, this must be stated.

    I’m not supporting hysteria – and indeed, the UK public are usually more pragmatic than the media and the experts who talk about such health issues.

    This current situation has been put into context in the UK, but at a time when trust in authority has been declining, it must be important that scientific terms aren’t used to hide realities.

    Re Twitter – of course, H1N1 is far fewer characters…

  7. Costowl – thanks. The media in UK at least still refer to swine flu but there was some awareness of H1N1 as the more appropriate term beyond the headlines.

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