The Speed of Media in 2019

Well, it’s Friday afternoon in Virginia, and at this time last week, things were a little bumpy but no one saw the cascade of news events ahead. Without discussing the details of the events, let’s look at the interplay between the news media and the subjects of the news, and then the ecosystem around them. Why?

Because news has fundamentally accelerated. If there was a scandal with the governor of any kind 10 years ago, it might have “broken” online but most people would not be aware of it until it was in the morning paper, and that might have a pretty big reach but very few official comments would be filed. If it had been 20 years ago, it would have definitely waiting for the Saturday morning paper and maybe the nightly news, stretching into Monday as reporters and editors waited for confirmation during business hours. 50 years ago, who knows?

The fact is, by Monday of this week, we’d had reactions to reactions, and a deluge of responses that called for action. The news went from breaking Friday late in the day, to calls for resignation by 9 p.m. Saturday morning there was additional news that was confusing. A minority of people suggested waiting to see, but rather than thorough research and confirmed facts, rumors flew through cyberspace. The press conference was live streamed, and scheduled on a Saturday because responding was urgent. Reports from the press conference begat tweets immediately.

With news alerts to our phones, we glean just the barest information — what the headline said, and no more (and maybe not even that if we didn’t read it right.) Many more people get their news not from a primary source, but from a secondary or tertiary source. Part of this is that all the pinging of our phones happens while we are doing other things. Few people tune in for the live stream unless they are very interested, and fewer stay for the whole thing. Conversations online show these gaps in information as people check their news or absorb information at different rates — some people know that other news has hit, while a few are just learning about the first piece.

I am definitively not commenting on the content of Virginia’s week in the spotlight, but I need to say that observing it as a journalist has fascinating. Rather than beat reporters following up with their sources, like they do every day or week, I saw the descent of TV news crews to the Capitol or the front door of the Attorney General’s office. Totally reasonable, but a different style of news gathering all together — the press gaggle pounces on whoever emerges. The response of the subjects is also disheartening, in which they don’t seem to understand the context of the media, who represents the public’s interests. The intensity of the pressure seems to lead to some strange off-the-cuff choices which is not great communication because we don’t know what it really means when it’s done thoughtlessly.

So one week later, we’ve had two press conferences, multiple press release statements, a few press gaggle interviews and a ton of bizarre revelations, conjecture, reactions, positioning and tweets. Is this the new media age, where a week feels like a year? Are we better off for it?


After giving a presentation this week on infectious diseases and deciphering health information, plus attending an excellent SHSMD session on the handling of the Ebola panic, I have a few thoughts. 

1. Even if all of us who work in the medical field think that people should know something, it's best to go back to the basics. Like the super-basic foundations of science -- for example, that a virus and a bacteria are different things but both can make us sick. Or, that one study does not science make!

2. Internal communication is ultra-important in a crisis. It's not enough to reassure the public. You must communicate to your staff, your board members, your volunteers and anyone working in your hospital. Because your credibility goes in the toilet when you say "We're prepared" but the reporter interviewing nurses on the loading dock hears "We've had no training on this."

3, Fear is a strong motivator, even if people know they shouldn't be afraid. They are, and they want to play it safe. I heard from someone who was thinking of firing her nanny because the nanny's mom was a nurse. It sounds like an overreaction now, but if you recall earlier this year, we were a nation on the edge of our seats as to whether we'd have an outbreak or not.

4. Communication takes time. It can be laborious when you want to be doing (let's go!!!) but it will save you time in the long run. Return people's calls (especially reporters!) even if you don't have anything new to share. Tell your employees what to expect. I agree with Doug Levy (formerly of Columbia University Health System) who said "Communication can't solve everything but it puts you in the best position to catch flaws in your plan." 

Infectious diseases are a tough topic, but one that we will continually revisit. They won't go away -- but we can educate and we can prepare. Oh, and we can communicate! 

Dentists and Lions, Oh My!

Having done practice marketing previously, I am deeply empathetic to whichever marketing person must try to deal with the epic PR disaster that is Dr. Walter Palmer, lion hunter. They likely never expected to have a non-dental related international disaster on their hands.

I always recommend to all clients, big and small, to have a crisis communication plan for all of the potential disasters that may come their way. It's not fun, but it is valuable to sit down and see your weak points and your industry's controversial angles. For a typical dental practice, we might review a scenario about someone having a bad reaction to anesthesia, for example, or a cosmetic procedure gone awry. 

Although the fervor is a bit unreal, it's a good reminder that all it takes is one Internet photo to change your business forever. If you've been working on building your Yelp presence and sending out press releases, stop what you are doing and sit down with that crisis sheet, seriously.