Epidemic PR: How Should the Media Cover the Coronavirus?

Every day on social media, there are memes, articles, and “takes” on what to do, feel, and think about the coronavirus. Some are played for laughs, others purport to be authoritative, and many fall somewhere on a spectrum between those descriptions. This reality, on its face, telegraphs a challenge the traditional media faces when covering any news these days, much less a story about a potential international virus epidemic.

First, the media companies need to get the story right, and they need to be able to convey that message clearly. It’s not just about making sure people don’t panic, but also about giving people clear and simple things to do that offer direction when there’s so much unknown about the disease.

Lack of knowledge is often a short step away from fear, so offering accurate information is job one. That alone is challenging because circumstances change. Coronavirus began as “be careful if you’ve been here,” and now, in March 2020, some news outlets are reporting that cases are being diagnosed in the United States where people did not travel and did not know if they had any contact with anyone who had traveled to an infected area. This knowledge, coupled with the climbing death toll, creates more uncertainty which can lead to more fear.

The facts — that people are dying, thousands are sick, and millions are quarantined — along with the economic issues running parallel to this virus as it spreads, are a recipe for fear and, potentially, panic. To avoid this, well-meaning people are sharing what they know and what they believe online. Meanwhile, bad actors are sharing scaremongering content online as well because they know that’s where a growing number of people are getting their information.

This brings things back around to the challenge: How can the traditional media compete? They need to get better at digital PR. Having a presence on social media is not enough. Traditional media outlets need to employ strategies that are known to work better and connect with more people in these channels.

Multimedia content, clips, images, memes, easily understood statistics and bullet-point lists are all good ways to communicate information. They tried “wash your hands” and now many retail stores are reporting that their shelves are empty. No soap, no sanitizer… People did what they were told to do, and they did a lot of it. The issue is that this directive was offered without context, without anything to moderate the response of the public.

Ratings are important, because if people aren’t listening, they are not getting the information they need. But ratings alone cannot be the driving factor. Every story, every post, every interaction is about developing trust with the audience, initiating and nurturing a relationship that will motivate people to come back to that source for more mundane news when this epidemic falls out of the news cycle.