Clickbait or coronavirus – which is the biggest threat to public safety?


Did anyone other than the Weekend Herald last week think its “Pandemonium” headline was okay?

If its aim was to cause alarm, it succeeded, and the resulting rush on supermarkets was both self-fulfilling and self-justifying. It’s a shame there’s been little questioning, and you have to wonder if it’s because calm and measured debate is not good clickbait.

In a perverse way, the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was like the lancing of a boil – it relieved growing pressure from the media and what almost looked like an eagerness to enter the game. But if it’s pandemonium now, what will the headlines be when it does get serious?

The official response led by the Ministry of Health has been planned, calm and measured. Most importantly it has been responsible and commensurate with the level of risk.

While that’s led to criticism of not enough being done, officials know this will be a long haul. At the time of writing there are three confirmed cases and no doubt there will be more. While we’re nowhere near it yet, it’s possible we may get widespread community transmission with significant impacts. If the worst happens, our health system might be overwhelmed – the messages will need to get harder and by their nature more alarming.

People react to crises with their hearts as well as their heads, and officials will need to acknowledge people’s fear and emotional responses as well as provide information to help them stay safe.

The media’s role in testing, questioning and challenging on behalf of the public will be critical, but that comes with a responsibility to be balanced and accurate.

The shame is that readers anxious for information have to read past the screaming and alarmist headlines before they can start to get the views of scientists rather than reporters.

Sensationalist coverage also forces those responding to deal not only with the crisis at hand, but with media that often struggle with complex stories not easily reduced to black and white, or good and bad.

Sadly, this challenge isn’t new and the reality of managing a crisis and reputation requires organisations to be ready and capable of communicating with media in a digital environment.

A crisis is normally characterised by its sudden and often unexpected arrival. The reputations of organisations are determined by their ability to respond quickly, build trust and establish themselves as sources of consistent, timely, valuable information.

A failure to do so not only leaves a vacuum; it can make the responder the target of frustration brought about by fear or lack of information.

The inevitable arrival of Covid-19 was the ultimate telegraphed punch, as are most organisational risks and vulnerabilities. Surprise may buy some time in the initial response, but it’s no excuse for failing to plan and prepare.