When coronavirus arrived in the UK at the start of this year, it was business as usual for me and I was writing marketing copy from home. Whether or not you work in marketing, I’m sure you’re aware that the way businesses, shops and services market themselves often ties into current affairs. That’s why accountancy firms have blogs covering topics like, “is your business ready for Brexit?” and why supermarkets run ad campaigns centred not on customers but on food bank donations.
Coronavirus could have been a great opportunity for some new marketing campaigns. “Is your business ready for coronavirus?” “Buy our sanitiser!” “Buy our PPE!” “Buy our jigsaw puzzles!” But it was also an opportunity to get rich by misleading people: “Buy our COVID cure!” Well, we all saw what happened when Donald Trump advocated taking hydroxychloroquine, at the time a drug untested against coronavirus. Hydroxychloroquine-related deaths in America increased and in most people it had no effect. Misinformation is dangerous. Wise marketing managers avoided the whole matter – in the case of global pandemics, it’s better to say nothing than to mislead people.
At the top of the internet information pyramid, Facebook, Twitter and Google were struggling to stem the tide of misinformation. In April 2020, a tweet claiming that hand sanitiser didn’t work on coronavirus attracted more than a million likes and 100,000 retweets before Twitter intervened and deleted it. Pinterest restricted posts about coronavirus for fear of sharing incorrect information. Facebook and Instagram created popups directing users to the NHS coronavirus information pages, to the horror of freedom of speech campaigners.
Back in March, writing marketing copy in this climate of carefully managed information, my first blog about coronavirus was, ironically, on why you shouldn’t blog about coronavirus. I asked readers to share only NHS messages and not to rebrand them as they risked undermining trust. I asked readers not to get creative about government messages, thereby not losing key information in translation.
This action (inaction?), this restraint, this toeing of the line, as performed by social media, search engines and the marketing community was all done with the best of intentions. It was done in the interests of not spreading misinformation and division at a time when the UK needed to pull together.
I believe journalists were doing something similar. As the numbers associated with the anti-sanitiser tweet show, coronavirus denial was a real phenomenon, and a threat to the world’s handling of the pandemic. If journalists had challenged politicians on coronavirus restrictions, it could have cast doubt on the rules and potentially turned coronavirus from a fact into an opinion.
Journalists, and all who work in the industry of sharing messages with the public, need to be responsible about the information that they share and the way that they share it. One of the responsibilities of journalists is to provide challenge, but they must use judgement too. They must challenge because their readers deserve balanced, accurate information and because leaders must be held to account. But journalists must not use challenge to erode trust when there are lives at stake.
In the meantime, the government has done a very good job of eroding trust all by itself. Journalists were right to withhold challenge back in March when people were afraid for their lives. But now panic has been replaced by weariness and people are afraid for their jobs, usual journalistic services should resume.
- Nurses: Pixabay