The Public Relations Strategist

Perception Vs. Reality: Lessons From the Ebola Panic

December 31, 2014

People make decisions based on perceptions. Not facts, perceptions. What brand offers the best value? What politicians should I vote for? What health precautions should I take?

As PR professionals, we help shape perceptions. Ethical PR professionals, the vast majority of today’s practitioners, won’t participate in creating a misperception.

But let’s raise an important two-fold PR question here: Do we always do all we should to correct misperceptions? And, do we have an obligation to play a role beyond simply protecting the interests of our clients?

Often, those important actions driven by misperceptions result from an imbalance of news reporting, which can have life and death consequences.

When the Ebola outbreak became news this past summer, many people in the United States hit the panic button. Frenzied, nonstop news coverage and commentary, via both traditional and social media, left an impression in the minds of many that a modern-day version of the plague was about to sweep the United States. People got scared. 

Politicians even found an opportunity — and willing media platforms — to whip up the frenzy during election season. Some even tried to mandate fear-based quarantines to counter medical experts’ advice and best public-health practices.

Highly qualified voices of caution and reason, especially if they came from small organizations that lacked PR funding and clout, were generally lost in the shouting.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, hyped-up national media coverage based on limited preliminary studies created fears of a national cancer epidemic caused by power lines. David Marash of “60 Minutes” even opined that the findings “may foretell a tragedy of enormous proportions.” However, more extensive studies came to show little or no cancer danger.

Competing for viewers

Today, the 24-hour news channels play a major role in shaping perceptions. But as the channels frantically compete for viewers, they too often stray into sensationalism. A U.S. senator who says the sky is falling will receive far more TV attention than an astronomer who says it hasn’t moved a bit. A constant drumbeat can make even an implausible position sound persuasive.

I recently saw a news story that said a survey of Americans showed a 7 percent increase in climate change deniers in 2013. That’s a misperception contrary to most scientific opinion,which cable news talkers undoubtedly fueled.

In a nationwide poll that Gallup conducted in early November, Americans listed Ebola as one of the top three U.S. health concerns. That put it far ahead of obesity, cancer, heart disease and substance abuse, all of which will take far more lives. But with only two U.S. deaths as we go to press, all related to people traveling here from Africa, perception and reality were way out of whack.

Ignorance was a key player in this period of Ebola hype and fright. Not much is scarier than the potentially lethal unknown. Because of our advanced health care system, though, there was never a danger, according to experts, that Ebola would spread across the country and kill thousands of people. 

There is a great irony here. While the Ebola situation was high on the Scare Scale, half the U.S. population was ignoring a much greater threat to life.

Retired Vice Admiral Adam M. Robinson, M.D., a former Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy, said at the time, “Americans are far more likely to die from the flu than Ebola. And yet half of the U.S. population fails to get a flu shot. This is a preventable illness.” Informed voices such as his got little attention in the media. Flu danger was just not a hot story — there wasn’t any real drama.

Robinson spoke as a member of the board of WiRED International, a small, nonprofit organization based in San Francisco. (Disclosure: I also serve on that board.) According to some estimates, this organization has saved thousands of lives by taking its peer-reviewed medical and health-training modules to remote areas that don’t have the Western world’s level of media access. 

While the organization’s primary goal is disease prevention in underdeveloped countries, its training modules are also free to anyone anywhere in the world who wants to log on and read them. There are several on Ebola alone, as well as the flu, in addition to 300 other diseases and health conditions — all easily understood and based on sound science.

So how does a small organization with real expertise, but without much of a PR budget, tell a story in major media, to counter harmful misperceptions and help experts from WHO or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set the record straight?
To me, this is an opportunity for PR firms and PR departments of large corporations to make a life-saving difference. Some suggestions:

• Adopt a worthwhile organization of this type, local or national, and make promoting its programs an important part of your pro-bono efforts. You have the media contacts and the know-how; the organizations have real expertise.

• Think not only of major news outlets, but also of local and social media in these efforts.

• Offer small, local nonprofits media orientation seminars and pro-bono media training for their spokespeople.

• Be ready to provide an expert with a different view when you see interviews that leave a wrong or misleading perception.

• Use your contact vehicles, such as newsletters and blogs, to address serious misperceptions.

Misperceptions can corrupt the public dialogue, leading to bad decisions. PR professionals can play an important role in guiding the public to the truth.

Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email: virgil@virgilscudder.com.

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