Is accuracy underrated? Keeping the message honest


In early November, the health care world rejoiced at the National Cancer Institute’s news of a study that revealed 20 percent fewer lung cancer deaths among patients screened with CT scans, rather than traditional chest X-rays. The headlines were streaming across tickers and featured on every major morning news show. Heavy smokers and lung cancer patients had renewed hope for the prognosis, which is the second most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer related death in the U.S. today.

While the study does point doctors in the right direction for detecting and treating the illness, there are a lot of qualifiers about who the screening helps and how.  It’s hard to read that between the lines of the news stories, though, and so the health care field now faces a new hurdle: educating people on the details of that study, and possibly abandoning that renewed hope.

It’s no secret that the 24/7 activity of news outlets demands breaking news at rapid speed. With Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets constantly streaming news, it’s no longer a feat for major news outlets to grasp onto these stories and run with them. With that said, shouldn’t journalistic due diligence also be required? The media shares the responsibility with the messenger, be it the White House or National Cancer Institute, to report accurate news stories. While the argument is often made that the rapid pace often lets the “whole story” slip by, this is a perfect example of the importance of managing messages delivered to the media.

In an effort to satisfy an audience’s thirst for the day’s highlights, many news outlets don’t cover the particulars of a story in the brief 30 to 60 second reports. In the case of the lung cancer study, media outlets failed to stress that the study only accounted for those between the ages of 55 and 74 years old, with “30 pack-years” under their belt. It ignored conclusions that acknowledged side effects from CT scans may not outweigh the benefit for those with moderate or low risk of the disease. The news reports also did not address the misdiagnoses that the CT scans had detected, causing some patients to undergo unnecessary procedures including partial or whole lung removal—a concern that medical professionals now feel many patients  do not fully understand.

As a result of the media attention, advertisements from CT screening centers are abundant, CT scan manufacturers continue to celebrate their effectiveness, and patients are demanding CT scans even when doctors don’t recommend them.

Retreating from a poorly managed message is no picnic; it takes a concerted, long-term effort and sometimes some serious adjustments to brand strategy.  In this case, the onus is shared by both the media and the National Cancer Institute, which should have more clearly delineated their concerns along with the breakthrough findings. Instead, early November’s news of hope on the horizon for lung cancer patients may be replaced by confusion, as warnings from the health care world assert that patients need to understand the risks associated with CT scans. And so continues the volley of information, from the mainstream media to the doctor’s office—each gauging public relations campaigns trying to combat the information of the other.

The lesson here for PR professionals seems obvious but gets lost often enough: think it through first, think it through again second, and announce it third.  It’s much easier to craft your message with key points that anticipate an audience’s reaction before sending it out to the media. Because once the toothpaste’s out of the tube, it’s awfully hard to get it back in.


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