Case #1: H1N1 in Singapore
So the lowdown, as it literally unfolded on the web…..
The news broke on Twitter early in the morning. Something along the lines of this happened on my Twitter timeline. I will have to tell you that upon seeing the flight number, age of patient and time of arrival, my heart literally sank. For reasons disclosed right below in this post. For one, these people involved are my friends and faculty. Yes, I am from SMU. Yes, I know these guys personally. No, I was not and did not go on the trip. No, you will not get any personal contact numbers/info from me. Especially if I don’t know you. The keyword here used repeatedly is personal. Although given the conversations, the press has already been remarkably active in emails and the likes in trying to reach the students on the trip. Impressive but fyi did not make you particularly popular with them. There is a difference between a message that says ” Are you okay? i’m worried about you.” and “Are you okay? I want to tell x number of other people about this story!“. And people can tell.
Some good lessons:
It’s good to have a crisis communications plan in place.
Bottomline, in this case, I and any number of other people had pointed all queries back to our university’s Corp Comms office. I think in any organization, if there had not been any prior briefings, there might have been all manner of untruths out there because people’s assumptions are being taken as truth when a random sampling of opinions of people not even involved is sought. It is only natural that in times of breaking news, those in the relevant organization will be contacted for their opinions. If you are in the PR/communications department, do you have a contingency plan in place to address this scenario? Are you actively aware of what is being said about your brand/service/employees, etc?
Also, in SMU, we are kept constantly updated about what is being said about us in the news. Apart from the daily alerts about the general mentions of the school that every single student receives, the NY BSM students get forwarded articles in which the class is mentioned. This means that I have a gist of the articles that were previously written about the NY BSM in the news so I roughly know the database of information that the journalists have access to. Do you think this could be extended to become a practice in any other organization or company? I sure think so. This is useful information and at the very least, at least those in the communications department should all be aware of the past coverage on their organization. If only because that’s probably going to be the one of the starting points of reference when any research is going to be carried out on a new article.
I cannot believe that people from the various media bodies are just randomly calling up any SMU student they know, asking if they are a NY BSM student (the New York cohort has always been carefully pre-selected from hundreds of applicants) and expecting them to cough up personal contact numbers. You call me, I can totally understand why, given I could very well have been on that trip, and even on that plane, if I had decided to cut short my extension. But random shots in the dark? There has to be a better way to go about doing this. Also, please, try not to do the media version of ambulance chasing.
I also feel a bit like the papers put words in our mouths. I said nothing of the sort of being scared of contracting the virus as appeared in the papers. Which normal human being would want to get it? Yes, that might have been one of the reasons but if I didn’t say it, should it even be taken as fact? A sentence generic enough to be believable was assumed, and stated as true. The same thing happened in a past interview in the New Paper, in an article where I was interviewed about Twitter. Classic “I don’t remember saying that” situation and a feeling of being misquoted ensued. Nevertheless, this is still remains a small issue in comparison with the fact that a certain publication has named the student, something that I am truly disappointed about.
I have heard that there have been other cases of our students in this BSM class being “misquoted” in the papers. I have nothing more to say except that this only breeds even more mistrust so it is highly unlikely that I will speak to any reporter that I do not know personally in future situations that may be similar, simply because I cannot trust them to do the right thing.
As for finding out the actual identity of the student….If you need a visual analogy, the point is that when someone has fainted on the road, they need oxygen. All of the bystanders standing around cramming and trying to sneak a peek simply cuts off that supply. The student has asked not to be named. We want to respect that. If you were close enough to know who it was, close enough to care, you would have already known who it was. If not, let’s just give her some space
I noticed to date from all the coverage that a certain paper has named her – was that honestly necessary? She’s in stable condition, the rest who have taken tests in the States have all tested negative so far. Plenty of other people are arriving from business trips and holidays from the States everyday, maybe someone was sick but didn’t have the courage to head straight to a doctor precisely because they were fearful of having to deal with the media attention and repercussions. Maybe this was the most newsworthy angle? We want names when we want to find out who won the match, sports, elections. I am not sure how everyone benefits from the naming of the student in this case, because it seems to cause more stress for her from the media attention, and honestly does nothing much more for others not personally involved. And yes, I am disappointed as well in whoever it was that volunteered her name to the press. I will not add on anymore because these posts pretty much sum up what many people are talking about privately.
Real Time Search & Information dissemination
So. After the news spreads on Twitter, CNA site crashes due to the influx of traffic (everyone wants to know what’s going on). < Aside: The geek in me wonders about the wonders of cloud computing and why crashes still occur when scalability was promised, maybe they are not hosted on the cloud? Not my area, maybe someone can explain.> Then there was the Today online article. And then, there was the Straits Times version, and SMU’s prompt follow up.
The news is live, information added as people are doing their jobs and filling in the blanks very impressively. Retweets/replurks on H1N1 in Singapore are fast and furious. Not just on Twitter, but on several discussion threads on Plurk. And many more in the other news publications.
Ironically, the Google and Twitter face-off in the real time search space has never been more apparent than this. Twitter was all aflutter with the links to the news article about the first case. Google search results kept returning the ironic link to “SIngapore still free of H1N1” as top post no less. Something to chew on then, for the Googlers, if they want to retain all slices of the search pie. Quite different to read about North American examples of breaking the news, and to experience our own local Singaporean version. Digital ethnography at it’s best, then.
I am the teaching assistant for the NY BSM class that was mentioned in the news. Our business study mission is one of THE best modules that we have at SMU, and in the case of the New York BSM, a chance at global exposure to some of the major media conglomerates in New York and interaction with people in the industry. No, I did not go to New York like I was slated to. For personal reasons, and after discussions with key stakeholders in my life. All these opinions expressed are my own. Thank you to friends who dropped a note and were genuinely concerned and thankful that I did not travel out.