November 21, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

The Responsibility to get Messaging Right

The Responsibility to get Messaging Right

While I’m reluctant to lump professional communicators and PR pros in the same group as those who author Disney shows, the line does get blurred when show creators make an attempt at “message programming.” In short, if they are treating the sitcom as a public education piece, and if they are going to use their shows for messaging, they have a responsibility to get it right–because they are acting as communicators.

Especially when the episode covers a medical issue.

Disney’s mystifyingly popular Hannah Montana show will air an episode in November in which one of the series’ recurring characters is diagnosed with diabetes. [Ed.: November is American Diabetes Month. Please sign the petition for a Google Doodle. Thanks!] While the show does not explicitly state where the idea came from, apparently Miley Cirus (the actress who plays ‘Hannah Montana’ in the series) used to date–are they even old enough for dating?–Nick Jonas of The Jonas Brothers ( a youth-oriented rock band). Nick Jonas has Type 1 diabetes. (Like Kerri Sparling, who tweeted this and posted about it at her blog, Six Until Me, I can’t really believe I’m writing about this stuff.)  In this situation, the show’s writers aren’t just creatives coming up with pithy one-liners for the tween set, their intent is to educate.

As I watched the three (painful–all that squealing!) segments of the episode, I found myself somewhere between being pleased that a company like Disney was trying to educate and raise awareness of a very important issue, without becoming annoyed at how they elected to go about doing it. Throughout the episode, it’s depicted that sugar is dangerous to diabetics. The truth is it is far more complex and nuanced than that.

Since Disney’s audience for this show is considerably younger than the actors/actresses in it, this is a very important point. I’ve known kids as young as six who watch the program–at that age, kids can be quite literal. So, the main problem with depicting sugar as being dangerous to diabetics (at one point, one of the characters knocks a sugary treat of some sort out of the way, and exclaims “hey I’m trying to save a life here”) is that the way you treat a low is with sugar. So a child who has a classmate with diabetes is left with the very clear message, “sugar is bad” and could very likely have the impression that their classmate will suffer ill consequences if he or she eats sugar, when in fact the exact opposite could be true.

I fully realize that diabetes is a complex chronic condition, and that the show’s creators are trying to increase awareness without getting too technical. Unfortunately, they missed the chance to do it right. If you have to oversimplify something to the point of inaccuracy, it’s best to take a step back and go a different route.

One of the many roles of PR practitioners is to take sometimes complex issues and make them understandable to the target audience they are trying to reach. There is a very important lesson buried in this Disney show (aside from raising awareness of diabetes), and that is communicators have a duty to stick with the facts, and not allow the process of translating the complex to the simple to take over. They also need to very carefully consider who is on the receiving end of these messages.

Disney, in my estimation, missed the mark on both counts.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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