Swine Flu Creates a Public Relations Outbreak

Despite frantic marketing and public relations efforts, organizations (and entire industries) cannot shed certain terms and perceptions.

The latest example is the swine flu frenzy earlier this month.

Most of us know that the pork tenderloin at our local meat market is safe – and “H1N1” has become common in media reports. However, “swine flu” remains the preferred label at the water cooler, on talk radio and online.

As the pork industry desperately tried to shift media coverage to the medically-correct term, I was reminded of Jakob Nielsen’s column on using old words:

There are many elements to search engine optimization, but SEO guideline #1 is our old friend, “speak the user’s language.” Or, more precisely, when you write, use keywords that match users’ search queries.

Swine flu isn’t an “old” term, of course, but it’s clearly preferred by users. A quick keyword comparison suggests that “swine flu” is searched roughly 30 times more often than “H1N1” (2,740,000 searches for “swine flu” compared to 90,500 for “H1N1”).

Similarly, most organizations have their own version of swine flu: a term they’d love to remove from consumer vocabularies – or at least avoid like the (non swine-flu) plague. Like swine flu, the term may be tied to a past crisis or public relations debacle. (Think corporate bailouts, Motrin Moms, baseball’s steroid woes or the Domino’s employee videos.)

Even if you succeed at removing or minimizing the term in the media, it may live forever online. Relying on traditional media relations tactics doesn’t overcome the realities of social media and the permanence of the web.

To that end, will pork producers confront swine flu more directly (through ongoing traditional and online public relations efforts), or hope it eventually withers away? Will consumers let the terminology battle die?

For Gerry McGovern, the answer is clear:

When words such as “swine flu” go wild on the Web, you must use those words because otherwise you will not be found. If you are not found then you are not useful. Before you have any chance of shifting the debate, you must first become part of it. Using the wrong words is like ships passing in the night: you are going one way and your customer is going another.

The pork industry is already reeling – but their next steps may determine how soon it recovers.

 

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