In her Thursday Night Insight this week, Emma Flood warns us what market researchers can learn from the ongoing handling of the swine flu epidemic.
Have you heard of swine flu? No doubt, like the rest of us, you have been poring over the alarmist messages in the newspapers about how deadly the virus is and how we’re all going to contract it.
The alarm caused by the reportage of this strain of flu no doubt caused a rise in hypochondriasis and a serious peak in sick days. So how did the government and the media help the general public on this, and try to avoid the panic which exacerbated these circumstances? Did they carefully communicate a number of select messages to those most in danger? And did they ensure that their messages were consistent? No. We were faced with a series of conflicting advice and information – some of us were told to stay indoors, others to avoid public transport. Some commuters took to extreme measures of wearing face masks, whilst others (like myself!) stocked up on antibacterial hand foam to ward off any potential infection.
Suffice to say, thankfully neither I nor any of my family have been struck down with this illness. This caused me to think, however, about our choices when presented with new information and data – what does it mean? What do we do with it? Who is it relevant to? How do we interpret it?
In this instance, journalists were provided with a series of often conflicting and misleading “facts and figures” from the government and associated bodies, and of course this was reported in an alarmist fashion – to generate interest and sell more column inches. What I find interesting is the selective reporting of facts. We were provided with a daily update on the number of deaths which had tragically occurred, and this was often reported in true scaremongering fashion with the headlines “swine flu death toll rises again” and “fears of pandemic”. Very little emphasis was placed on the prior underlying health concerns of these victims, and we were all herded into the same risk group, thus further heightening our concern and attempts to avoid contracting the virus. Had the media helped in communicating that those most at risk were those with existing health concerns, we might have avoided such a swine flu frenzy.
As researchers, it is our duty to effectively interrogate and deconstruct data, in order to communicate the real findings back to our client. We have to be skilled in drawing out the real facts, and confident that the picture we are portraying is a true reflection and communicates the right messages. We know that our recommendations can lead to strategic change for an organisation, and behind that is often a significant budget.
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