Charity chief blames PROs for poor health coverage

PR professionals who exaggerate scientific studies about possible causes of cancer are destroying public trust in health advice, a charity comms chief has warned.

Public distrust: contradicting health reports
Public distrust: contradicting health reports

The World Cancer Research Fund's head of comms Richard Evans is calling on PROs to be more responsible about how they present health stories to the media. Evans spoke to PRWeek to highlight the results of a survey by the charity. He said mixed messages were fuelling public cynicism about health messages in general.

The charity's YouGov survey of 2,404 people found that 46 per cent did not trust media stories about how food and drink increased or decreased cancer risk. Some 21 per cent said if they trusted the media more, they would be more likely to make changes to what they ate and drank.

'People tend to get the impression that scientists are constantly changing their mind about what causes cancer, so they say they'll have what they like anyway. Actually, cancer prevention advice has not changed that much over the past ten years,' said Evans.

He said the media needed new information, so they prioritised unreliable studies with interesting findings over reliable studies that confirmed previously held knowledge. This left readers thinking the individual studies represented the latest scientific thinking, when often they were just one-off studies that needed more investigation.

'Sometimes we should be playing down the findings of scientific studies and putting them into a better context,' he said. 'For example, including prominently in a press release the problems with a study. This may mean going against PROs' instincts - getting on to page 34 of a newspaper rather than getting the splash.'

Bowel Cancer UK's director of comms Ian Beaumont agreed that when it came to messages around cancer, PROs had to be aware of the impact they can have on people's lives. 'This is not like a consumer campaign. People can make up their minds about what hairspray they use, but they are reliant on professional health messages,' he said.

'The instinct in the media is to go for the extremes, but you need to resist the black-and- white message. PROs need to be wary of being either the harbingers of doom, or overly optimistic. I would rather have less coverage but people know the truth.'

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