‘Old’ media can be great in showing how ‘old’ PR can be dreadful

I uncovered a gem of a programme today: Inside Stories, on BBC Radio 4 – “Follow major news stories as they travel through the media machine. Journalists and editors discuss the key decisions made.”

Sadly it’s not a podcast, but happily you can hear it again. I highly recommend it.

The programme looked at the bird flu scare in the UK, in which millions of people lived for several weeks in mortal dread of being sneezed at by a chicken.

It discussed all sides of the story: the journalists and editors figuring out how to sell it; and the PRs trying to protect the reputations of all involved, mainly the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Bernard Matthews turkey farm where the infection was thought to have originated.

The journalists, of course, tried to think of the most emotive headlines. They changed it from an animal health story to a human health. They came up with a bodybags scenario which, so long as it was rational, was acceptable. Did I hear them snigger at that point? I believe I did.

The PR reactions were terribly unfortunate. There was a poor flow of information from Defra and the Matthews company, so that individuals were polling vets over the phone to find out what was going on. The final ‘incompetence’ was a PR representative, suitably anonymously described as ‘from the London PR firm retained by Matthews’, telling the press “It is not in our interests to give you too much information at this time.”

It has been commonly regarded as a PR disaster. It turned a 3 or 4 day story into a 10-day runner.

Interestingly, the second time the disease hit, it seems to have been handled in textbook style with information made available to all journalists and widely disseminated. And the fallout from the journalist’s side? Their reaction nowadays is “Oh no, not another [expletive deleted] bird flu story.”

Perhaps both sides learned from the experience?

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