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.
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.
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.