How COVID-19 has brought back the public’s appetite for facts

When will audiences tune out from sheer exhaustion? Here’s how one PR pro sees the journey for media coverage of the historic pandemic.

I’ve been a media relations strategist for 15 years and now helping healthcare brands tell their stories in a world that’s been turned on its axis. But, in an abnormal COVID-19 environment, something extraordinary has occurred: A rejuvenated appetite for the facts.

I graduated with a B.S. in Journalism in 1999. The threat of “Y2K” was on the horizon, 9/11 hadn’t happened and we didn’t have smart phones. We barely had internet. Americans valued news and fact-based reporting; the Twitterverse had yet to take hold.

I was proud to be working in the news business. I was telling real stories that mattered. However, when I left news for a career in public relations, the lines of journalism and entertainment were starting to blur. More media platforms were appearing on the scene and you couldn’t consume content fast enough. The emergence of the digital age coined “click bait” and the business of entertainment was becoming a priority for the C-suite at some news organizations. Hard news was becoming less popular and people began to gravitate towards editorialized programming, so they could read and watch content that aligned with their own personal values and beliefs.

Fast forward to 2020, and the current media landscape.

As fears over the novel coronavirus increased, people craved the most up to date, accurate information to protect themselves and their families. They no longer wanted the noise. They wanted the news. They wanted science.

Health care communications has never been so important. I’m once again telling real stories that matter. And with the recent death of George Floyd and the upsurge of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, we truly are experiencing an unprecedented news environment.

The reenergized demand for news hasn’t just applied to the national outlets, but on the local level as well. Even hyper-local stations have seen spikes in the ratings. The deluge and speed of information about the virus has been overwhelming for newsrooms, especially with the added burden of having to do virtual newscasts. The responsibility to get it right has never been greater.

So, what does that mean for us in health care media relations? It means that if we are going to continue to be a trusted resource for our contacts, we better get it right. If we have medical experts to offer, data to share, patient stories to tell, then they had better be honest, authentic and meet the needs of the basic tenets of “old school” journalism. Our pitches have to be humble, to the point and attached to reason while still resonating with the emotion.

For health care communications professionals, this has been our moment. Our moment to rise to the occasion and to shine. We are partners with the news media to communicate science to Americans who are literally facing life and death. Our burden to get it right is just as heavy on us as it is on them.

However, we may have reached the peak of the coronavirus coverage curve. As states slowly start re-opening, I’ve noticed a lot of COVID-19 fatigue and that’s been reflected in the news coverage. A 30-minute evening newscast is no longer stacked with COVID-19 stories. They are answering the public’s call to return to life as we knew it. Despite a recent rise in cases in the South and West, demand is still increasing for entertaining, lighter, feel-good stories—a break from the heavy weight of pandemic storytelling. So, instead of ratings spikes for ABC’s “World News Tonight with David Muir”, we likely will soon see that shift to ABC’s “The Bachelor” instead. Back to summer. Back to politics. Back to the Twitterverse.

But, oh, how nice it has been to see you return my old friend: journalism. You have reminded me of my mission as a health care media relations strategist. We inevitably need to allow space for some of our “normal” to return which includes our comfort level with limited attention spans.

However, while I embrace this reality, I will never forget my responsibility to go “old school” and slow down to cut through the noise, seek the truth—and tell the stories that matter.

Jenifer Slaw is the senior vice president for media relations with Y&R PR.

 

COMMENT

2 Responses to “How COVID-19 has brought back the public’s appetite for facts”

    Markham Howe, APR says:

    Well said. Just the facts, please. I am so tired of opinion columns from writers who dwell on left or right wing politics, instead of the facts. Give us news that affects our lives.

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