Everyone needs to think about what they’re doing and saying

Were all in it together. Click image for source.

We're all in it together. Click image for source.

I’ve just listened to a piece on the radio 4 Today programme about the swine flu rapidly spreading across continents. The speaker is a professor with a kindly, reassuring delivery. He sounds like my local postman. But he’s just coined the phrase ‘Armageddon virus’ while considering the impact a combination of swine flu and the HN51 H5N1 (thanks Steve, numbers were never my strong point) virus might have in Asia.

The presenter, Ed Stourton, repeated this a couple of times. He must have been rubbing his hands with glee. It could sit alongside Frankenstein foods as a phrase for our times, and it originated on Today. It could spread, much like the virus itself (and unlike the Today ‘viral’).

Armageddon outta here

However, if I were in any way associated with that professor in a PR capacity I would right now be burying my head in my hands and weeping. It didn’t seem to register with the professor in any way that he shouldn’t have said what he did. I just wonder whether the phrase will be picked up, and what effect it will have on an already slightly nervous public.

Frankenstein foods

He isn’t the first to be ever so slightly irresponsible in his delivery. I’ve already mentioned Frankenstein foods, the label used in the UK to describe GM crops. I’ve tried finding who was ‘patient zero’ for that particular phrase and cannot. However the Frankenstein foods hysteria has been credited with seriously damaging the UK biotech industry.

Curried eggs

Then, again in the UK, there was the junior health minister Edwina Currie who, in 1988, declared that most of Britain’s egg production was infected with salmonella. Egg sales plummeted. She tried to make amends in 1990 with the National Egg Awareness campaign but no one remembers that so it can’t have been too impactful. I remember waiting for someone to coin the phrase ‘Curried eggs’ at the time, but no one did.


Finally, this time across the pond, we have a truly breathtaking example of someone not saying, but doing something without thinking of the media consequences. I refer to the idiotic, cretinous, moronic decision to fly Airforce 1 on a long, low flightpath across Manhattan, causing panic among its citizens. What were they thinking? I mean, really?

The job of a copywriter is to put oneself into the audience’s minds, to think like they do, and tell them a story in the way they want to hear it. We think about the effect our words will have on people. I totally understand that a live radio situation can be stressful and people might say the wrong thing, but it only makes it more imperative that those people receive decent media training, to stop them saying or doing daft things that might cause panic.

Because the Armageddon virus may never happen. Curried eggs never killed any one. But the Manhattan flyby – I can only imagine the very genuine fear it provoked.

3 thoughts on “Everyone needs to think about what they’re doing and saying

  1. Brendan, it may well be that the PR involved think it was better to get the catchy phrase out there and follow it up by using it all the time/write a book with the title.

    The danger in this whole scenario has been the overplay of the word ‘could’ as in ‘could kill us all’. So far it’s a flu virus with less than 8% fatality rate which is hardly horrific (unless you are in the 8%) for a virus.

  2. If so it’s grossly irresponsible PR.

    I agree about the word ‘could’. Having said which, 8% mortality is still fairly scary, don’t you think?

    The bird flu scare didn’t bother me much. I couldn’t see how one could die as a result of being sneezed on by a chicken. But 8% mortality is slightly worrying. The UK population is around 60 million, so that would be just a shade under 5 million popping their clogs.

    Fortunately it does seem to be quite mild outside of Mexico for whatever reason. But yes, you’re right – in theory we ‘could’ all be instantly wiped out by a large foot squishing the earth but it’s not likely to happen.

  3. It depends on what the PR goal was. I agree that, from a societal point of view, it is irresponsible, but if the aim was short-term gain for the prof, giving him a buzz phrase then it’s a job well done. Very rarely does any walk of life – PR, politics, machinery, industries – concern itself with the greater and long-term good.

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