Lessons from the CDC’s pushback on chicken costumes reporting

News outlets said the agency asked owners of pet chickens not to dress them up for Halloween, citing salmonella fears. Its response offers takeaways on setting the record straight.

When inaccurate reporting ruffled feathers at the CDC, the agency fired back.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pushed back on news reports that it was telling chicken owners not to outfit their birds for Halloween. The reports had originally flagged the practice as dangerous due to a particular strain of salmonella and possible contamination.

ABC reported (in a story that has been updated for clarification):

When dressing a chicken, whether in a Halloween costume or a sweater, it is easier for a person to come into contact with harmful bacteria that live on poultry, including salmonella, health experts say.

The CDC is asking pet owners to use caution when handling their feathered friends due to a particular strain of salmonella.

At least 92 people in 29 states have been infected with a strain of multidrug-resistant salmonella after coming into contact with raw chicken products. No deaths have been reported, but 21 of the sick patients have been hospitalized.

Fortune also published the erroneous warning.

However, the CDC says the reports were made in error. It has offered apress release stating:

Despite news reports to the contrary, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not warned people against dressing chickens in Halloween costumes.

However, we do advise people with backyard or pet chickens to handle them carefully to keep their family and their chickens safe and healthy.

The release listed other health and safety tips for bird owners:

  • Always wash your hands after touching chickens or anything in their environment. Running water and soap are best. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available, and wash your hands thoroughly when you get to a sink.
  • Keep chickens outdoors. Never bring them in your house.
  • Don’t eat or drink in the area where the birds live or roam.
  • Don’t kiss your birds or snuggle them and then touch your face or mouth.
  • Children under 5 years old should not hold or touch chickens. Young children are more likely to get sick because their immune systems are still developing and they are more likely to put their fingers or pacifiers and other items into their mouths.

The news had Twitter users crowing:

Here are lessons from this avian incident for PR pros looking to set the record straight:

1. Make sure your correction can compete.

For your news to break through, it isn’t always enough to piggyback on the original, erroneous report that you are trying to correct. Make sure your announcement is interesting and compelling enough to stand on its own. Include fun visuals and content to entice social media users to share the story.

Though many news outlets were ready to write a story about chickens in Halloween costumes, there wasn’t much to the CDC’s correction. By adding images of chickens in costumes or social media shares, its response—including its safety guidance—could have gotten more coverage.

2. Don’t single out a reporter.

People make mistakes, and embarrassing someone who has made an error won’t encourage them to help you correct the record. PR pros should use their pitching skills—and their best manners—when requesting a correction. If you must make your own announcement, referring to a generalized “false report” instead of calling a reporter on the carpet could significantly bolster your media relations efforts.

3. Offer more than just a rebuttal.

You can just counter an argument against your organization—and you might get an updated story from your announcement. If you can include new information, you might get an entirely new piece—one that omits the information you are trying to correct.

By adding a list of warnings about proper bird handling to its statement on chicken Halloween costumes, the CDC changed the discussion about chicken protocols. Instead of quibbling over costumes, media outlets shared important tips about safe care and handling of the birds.

4. Share your news on social media.

A chicken in a costume is perfect fodder for social media channels like Twitter, but the CDC’s handles haven’t tweeted or shared anything about the news. To talk about something as lighthearted as a chicken in a sweater might not be part of the organization’s social media strategy, but it certainly was a missed opportunity to jump on a trending subject.

What do you think of the CDC’s rebuttal, PR Daily readers?


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