They made a lot of money: Football and PR lessons from Texas Tech’s masked rider program

I’ve been binge watching Mr. Robot.

It’s too intense to blog.

michael-strong-texas-tech-university-texas-tech-tradition-the-masked-riderBut now that American-style football is back, I have background to which I can blog.

As the opening game extravaganza began at 10:30 a.m. Brisbane time, and with Sorenne safely at school (we had a parent-teacher interview, the kid is great, if not conventional) I emailed Ben and Amy and said, Americans really know how to do a spectacle. But from a risk management perspective, I’m concerned about the horse.

They are the Denver Broncos, so of course there was a horse.

Amy said she’d never heard this story.

So, from Michael Sommermeyer of Texas Tech University, his 1994 crisis communications regarding a horse at football games (there weren’t blogs back then, and Harrison Ford didn’t have an earring).

According to legend, the first Texas Tech Masked Rider, wearing a scarlet satin cape, rode out onto a football field during half-time of a game in 1937. The rider circled the field on a “borrowed” Palomino stallion, then rode off into the night to return the horse before it was discovered missing. In truth it was the Saddle Tramps, an university spirit fraternity, who first sent this rider around the field wearing a satin cape crafted by the home economics department on a horse named Silver.

The Masked Rider tradition didn’t take hold, however, until Texas Tech’s first Gator Bowl appearance in 1954. This time a black horse was mounted by the first official Masked Rider, Joe Kirk Fulton, an agriculture student. After the game, _Atlanta Journal_ sports writer Ed Danforth wrote, “No team in any bowl game ever made a more sensational entrance.” Since that game, the tradition of the horse circling the field has grown into nationwide prominence. Few in the stands forget a jet-black quarter horse galloping at full speed; with the Masked Rider masterly holding on — thumbs and forefingers forming the Red Raider “guns up” — as the cape flaps in the breeze. Eleven Mascots have served as the Masked Rider’s steed, including a horse purchased two years ago named Double T.

On September 3, 1994, Texas Tech opened its football season with a game against New Mexico State. This also happened to be the game selected to celebrate the 40-year tradition of the Masked Rider program. Sixteen former riders were at the game to celebrate. During each game, the Masked Rider leads the team onto the field and, after every score, takes a victory gallop down the west sideline. After a score in the third period, the Masked Rider and horse began a victory gallop. During this gallop the saddle slipped, throwing the rider off the horse. The horse reacted and began running loose on the field. As the horse reached its “home” tunnel, it slipped, fell headfirst into a concrete wall and crushed its skull. The horse died immediately.

The Masked Rider’s handlers, members of the Saddle Tramps and the university veterinarian rushed to the scene. They began trying to help the horse and make preparations to remove the mascot from the stadium. Before the accident a plan was initiated in the event the horse died. This plan provided for an immediate response from the university veterinarian, provided for a horse trailer at the stadium, and indicated to cover the horse with a tarp. Other policies and procedures also are outlined in the plan, however these points were essential to an immediate response. The tarp proved an essential part of the plan because many children were sitting in the area where the horse died, and they all were upset. The tarp helped to distance these children from the death. The Masked Rider, Amy Smart, was taken to the hospital with a sprained wrist and bruises. She was later released and met with Masked Rider committee members.      Texas Tech has two main public relations offices: the Office of News and Publications and the Sports Information Office. Also, the Masked Rider program often handles its own publicity. Immediately, all media requests, public comment and questions were directed to the Office of News and Publications. This controlled who would provide information to the public. The Office of News and Publications has a plan for emergencies, however, that plan usually refers to planes crashing into dorm buildings or tornadoes ripping up the campus. So the plan is very detailed. However, in this case, parts of the plan did provide the staff with a way to respond quickly. Following the plan, the appropriate members of the Office of News and Publications staff, the director, News Bureau manager and the representative to the Masked Rider program, were contacted via a phone tree to discuss the accident, provide information and outline an initial plan of action. This group agreed to talk again in a few hours to outline an “After the Accident” plan. Once the basic information had been gathered, the staff provided a statement to the media regarding the injuries sustained by the Masked Rider and the death of the mascot. An emergency meeting of the Masked Rider program committee was called to discuss what to do with the horse. A representative of the Office of News and Publications attended this meeting. At one point in the meeting it was suggested the horse should be taken to a horse rendering plant. The public relations representative outlined the negative publicity that might generate, and the committee agreed to bury the horse at the Texas Tech farm. Various media stories were presented during the weekend, with quoted comments coming from the Office of News and Publications spokesperson.

MR. ROBOT -- Season:2 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Eliot Alderson -- (Photo by: Nadav Kander/USA Network)

MR. ROBOT — Season:2 — Pictured: Rami Malek as Eliot Alderson — (Photo by: Nadav Kander/USA Network)

The Masked Rider committee agreed to meet again, after the Labor Day holiday. This delay gave the media a few days to speculate on whether the program might be scrapped. In meetings with the media, the Office of News and Publications spokesperson said the program wouldn’t be terminated, but indicated it was up to the committee to make a final decision. Because the media was speculating the death of Double T would mean the end of the program, a plan was created to handle the alumni’s fear that the Masked Rider program would be eliminated. Campus operators, University Center spokespeople, Sports Information spokespeople and the Ex-Students Office were directed to transfer all phone calls from the public to the Office of News and Publications. The staff took more than 200 phone calls from the alumni and the public regarding the program and the horse. Staff members wrote down all comments and kept a record of people offering a new horse. All comments were then recorded in a computer database. This procedure helped to control the public response from the university and provided an internal tally of program supporters and potential donors. The Office of News and Publications contacted the development office and created a Double T Memorial Fund through the Texas Tech University Foundation. This fund would be used to pay for a marker at the burial site. All callers were told by staff how to donate money to the memorial fund. The staff also prepared a plan for a memorial service to be presented to the Masked Rider Committee. The goal was to present a plan that would put the best possible face on the situation. Also, since the committee tends to be disorganized, it was necessary to present a plan that would be accepted quickly.

Staff members involved in the crisis agreed a memorial service should be held during the next football game scheduled for Thursday (Sept. 8). This game happened to be televised on ESPN, which provided an opportunity to show school spirit to a national audience. The Office of News and Publications staff wanted to control the public relations effort and come to the Masked Rider committee with a plan already in place, in an effort to eliminate any doubt which office would communicate for the university. The staff agreed the memorial service should honor more than just a fallen mascot. It should honor a tradition. It seemed probable the Masked Rider committee would vote to keep the Masked Rider program, so the staff began working on a memorial plan that would provide closure, show school spirit and be in good taste. During the Masked Rider committee meeting, The Office of News and Publications staff presented the memorial service plan to the committee and presented justification for each point in the plan. The memorial plan centered around the observation of a moment of silence on the field before the game. Additionally, a memorial wreath would be placed on the spot where the horse would have normally stood during the game. Plus, The Goin’ Band from Raiderland would dedicate the school song to Double T and the Masked Rider would place the horse’s reins on the wreath. This plan offered the university a way to show school spirit. It presented the children who witnessed the death of Double T a chance at closure. And, the plan allowed the university to indicate the program would continue, if the committee decided the program would go on. During the Masked Rider committee meeting, it also was suggested that the audience be asked to give a “Guns Up Salute” to the tradition. The Office of News and Publications staff agreed this was a way to involve the audience. After listening to the presentation the committee agreed the plan was the best way to honor the tradition, and because it was already outlined, the committee was allowed to make other decisions. At the Masked Rider committee meeting, all members of the local media, television and print, attended. Two television stations reported live from the university as the meeting commenced. The committee agreed to continue the Masked Rider tradition, made plans to search for a new horse, decided to reexamine safety procedures and determined how to handle incoming donations. The Office of News and Publications staff wrote a script for the memorial service describing the proud tradition of the Masked Rider, made a point to say the tradition would continue and directed the crowd where to send donations.

The Office of News and Publications met with the media, including the producers and commentators of ESPN, and emphasized that “traditions make great universities.” The staff reemphasized the Masked Rider program would continue. Staff members also talked up the memorial service and encouraged the community to participate. Staff members did not bring up the question of safety of the program unless asked. Only one reporter followed this angle. Overall, the response to keep the program was overwhelming. The Office of News and Publications received more than 200 calls from alumni stating the program should remain. More than 25 calls came in offering donations for horses and more than 50 calls offered money or other support. The Masked Rider program will recover and should be able to add to an endowment which funds the program. A memorial area will be built where the horse is buried at the Texas Tech farm, honoring this fallen mascot and the program. The program was featured on national television during our matchup with the University of Nebraska and later during ESPN’s SportsCenter. The university was able to show a strong sense of tradition. This is important because Texas Tech joins Nebraska in the Big 12 Conference next year.

The Masked Rider committee had a plan for dealing with an accident in place. This plan was relied upon during the death of Double T. The Office of News and Publications became the official office for information. There was one spokesperson who spoke with the press. This eliminated speculation, controlled the release of information and forced the media to seek out our office for comment. All calls from alumni and the public were funneled to this office. All offices on campuses receiving calls, faxes or letters were directed to send them to the Office of News and Publications. This action allowed the Office of News and Publications to control the internal relations of the university and present one story to the public. The staff immediately began creating a protocol for the memorial service to be held during the pre-game ceremonies of our matchup with Nebraska. The staff’s expertise allowed the office to outline a memorial service and then present the plan to the Masked Rider committee. The staff then made all arrangements for making this plan work. This action allowed the Office of News and Publications to detail a plan with the most impact, while limiting in-fighting among Masked Rider committee members.

Things to consider:

            ** Create an office emergency plan to be in place in advance. This should include a telephone tree or a way to contact staff members quickly. This plan should include a place for the staff to gather, especially if the emergency involves loss of life or buildings.

            ** Be willing to take charge and become the spokesperson for the organization. In a large organization, it is important to control the flow of information, emphasize the positive points, have answers for the negative points and be ready to serve as a resource.

            ** Quickly develop, or re-tool, a plan of action for putting a positive spin on a bad situation. It is important to control the media and shape the public relations actions of any committee involved in the disaster. Public relations often involves shaping internal as well as external perceptions. As the public relations expert, it is critical to show the way.

            ** Keep a log of positive and negative calls coming in to the organization. This log should include names and phone numbers. It helps to have this log latter when you need to followup with alumni or donors. This log also shows the public relations office is doing its job.

            ** When planning a memorial for a horse, don’t consider lowering the flags to half-staff. That tribute is reserved for public officials and other people, not animals. (Calls will come in demanding to know why the flags are not at half-staff!)

            ** As a public relations professional, follow your instincts. They are usually right.

Accidents are unavoidable, however pre-planning can eliminate the fears and questions that follow an accident. Perhaps everything the Office of News and Publications did in responding to this accident did not follow the best path, however in this situation it seemed to work. Answer the media’s questions quickly and honestly and look for a way to put the best light on the situation. In this case, the staff built support for the program, found new donors and gave our alumni and supporters of the Masked Rider a chance at closure following the death of Double T. And in the end, the comments like, “You did a great job,” or “You really know what you’re doing,” show the plan worked.


Science PR? I just think about sex

I’ve been a scientist, journalist, writer

Sure, I dabbled in college, didn’t everyone?

But when I got the scientist gig, I quickly realized the PR hacks at whatever university I was at were just that –J-school grad hacks.

CSWA-Slideshow2Can’t blame them, went for the stable income and routine.

But it annoyed me to shit when they wouldn’t do their job, for whatever bureaucratic reason.

I soon learned to just write my own press releases whenever the news was relevant or a new paper came out.

If only I could get paid for it.

But that would lead to excruciatingly endless and mind-numbing meetings where I would daydream about sex.

Good science PR has its role, and Nick Stockton of Wired writes a website called EurekAlert gives journalists access to the latest studies before publication, before those studies are revealed to the general public. Launched 20 years ago this week, EurekAlert has tracked, and in some ways shaped, the way places like Wired cover science in the digital era.

Yes, of course the Internet was going to change science journalism—the same way it was destined to change all journalism. But things could have been very different. EurekAlert gathered much of the latest breaking scientific research in one easily accessible place.

You probably know the basic process of science: Researcher asks a question, forms a hypothesis, tests the hypothesis (again and again and again and again), gets results, submits to journal—where peers review—and if the data is complete and the premise is sound, the journal agrees to publish.

Science happens at universities, government institutions, and private labs. All of those places have some interest in publicizing the cool stuff they do. So those places hire people—public information officers—to alert the public of each new, notable finding. (OK, maybe some aren’t so notable, but whatever.) And the route for that notification is often via journalists.

And, much like the way journalists compete with one another for scoops, journals compete with one another for the attention of journalists to publicize their research. After all, Science, Nature, JAMA, and so on are interested in promoting their brands so they can attract more smart, impactful research. As someone smart once said, science is a contact sport.

So how did EurekAlert become the one clearinghouse to rule them all?

In 1995, an employee for the American Association for the Advancement of Science had an idea for this newfangled Internet thing. Nan Broadbent was the organization’s director of communications, and she imagined a web platform where reporters could access embargoed journal articles. Not just from the AAAS publication Science, but all new research from every journal. Which might seem trite on today’s hyper-aggregated web. But remember, this was an era when anime nerds on Geocities were still struggling to organize their competing Ranma 1/2 fansites into webrings1.

Sorta the way Food Safety Network started in 1993. I hosted the Canadian Science Writers Association annual meeting in 1991 while working at the University of Waterloo, where ideas about access were vigorously discussed.

But while EurekAlert democratized journalists’ access to papers, and PIOs’ access to journalists, those who had the resources to develop their own connections—like Grabmeier’s boss, or reporters at big, national outlets—suddenly found themselves competing with, well, everyone. “EurekAlert is kind of like a giant virtual press conference, in that it pulls everybody to the same spot,” says Cristine Russell, a freelance science writer since the 1970s.

That centralization, coupled with the embargo system (which has existed way before EurekAlert), has contributed to a longstanding tension within science journalism about what gets covered—and what does not. Embargoes prohibit scientists and journalists from publicizing any new research until a given date has passed, specified by whatever journal is publishing the work.

EurekAlert opened up science in a way that it had never been open before. The site has 12,000 registered reporters from 90 different countries (Getting embargoed access is a minor rite of passage for new science writers). It receives around 200 submissions a day, from 10,000 PIOs representing 6,000 different institutions all around the world. Once an embargo lifts, anyone is free to read the same press releases as the journalists (access to the original papers is a trickier ordeal). EurekAlert gets about 775,000 unique visitors every month. Its articles are translated into French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Chinese.

Sure, the site is not perfect. It is arguably no longer even necessary—modern journalists are web native-or-die self-aggregators. But that’s the thing. EurekAlert was never trying to be much more than a convenience. Which turned out to be its greatest gift: Making science easy to access.


What foods make people sick? It’s complicated, so follow the bug

Sometimes it’s best to let things ruminate, ferment, instead of simply repeating public relations drivel.

bob-carol-ted-alice-1969-2Guess that’s one reason people write books. Or journal articles.

Various U.S. government agencies patted themselves on the back for their “improved method for analyzing outbreak data to determine which foods are responsible for illness” while underselling the actual report.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) co-authored a report (and threesomes never work out well), Foodborne Illness Source Attribution Estimates for Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157 (E. coli O157), Listeria monocytogenes (Lm), and Campylobacter using Outbreak Surveillance Data by the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC). A partnership of the three agencies, IFSAC focuses on foodborne illness source attribution, which is the process of estimating the most common food sources responsible for specific foodborne illnesses.

The report briefly summarizes IFSAC’s methods and results, including estimated attribution percentages for the four pathogens named in its title. CDC estimates that, together, these four pathogens cause 1.9 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States each year.

The agencies anticipate that IFSAC’s work will enhance their efforts to prevent foodborne illness.

Who doesn’t anticipate what threesomes will bring.

food.attribution.fbi.feb.15The new estimates, combined with other data, may shape agency priorities and support the development of regulations and performance standards and measures, among other activities. The recently developed method employs new food categories that align with those used to regulate food products and emphasizes more recent outbreak data.

As outlined in the report, IFSAC analyzed data from nearly 1,000 outbreaks that occurred from 1998 to 2012 to assess which categories of foods were most responsible for making people sick with Salmonella, E. coli O157, Listeria, and Campylobacter. IFSAC experts divided food into 17 categories for the analysis. The pathogens were chosen because of the frequency or severity of the illnesses they cause, and because targeted interventions can have a significant impact in reducing them.

The report presents the methods behind the results and provides the amount of uncertainty around the estimates. 

Some of the findings include:

More than 80 percent of E. coli O157 illnesses were attributed to beef and vegetable row crops, such as leafy vegetables.

Salmonella illnesses were broadly attributed across food commodities, with 77 percent of illnesses related to seeded vegetables (such as tomatoes), eggs, fruits, chicken, beef, sprouts and pork.

Nearly 75 percent of Campylobacter illnesses were attributed to dairy (66 percent) and chicken (8 percent). Most of the dairy outbreaks used in the analysis were related to raw milk or cheese produced from raw milk, such as unpasteurized queso fresco.

More than 80 percent of Listeria illnesses were attributed to fruit (50 percent) and dairy (31 percent). Data were sparse for Listeria, and the estimate for fruit reflects the impact of a single large outbreak linked to cantaloupes in 2011.

The figure on the right (the one other than Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice) is what they sent out to PR types. The figure on the left is what they actually wrote.

Biggest PR screw-up in NZ for 2014? Bad lettuce

The handling of a food poisoning scare involving carrots and lettuce has been deemed the biggest public relations challenge this year by a Wellington PR firm.

lettuce.skull.e.coli.O145The handling of the Yersinia pseudotuberculosis issue by the Ministry for Primary Industries beat the closure of regional flight routes by Air New Zealand and Roger Sutton’s resignation by the State Services Commission to make the top of the list.

“In a year of dirty politics, what really concerned New Zealanders most was dirty lettuce and carrots,” BlacklandPR director Mark Blackham said.

“Everyone had these vegetables in our fridges, yet no one in authority could say for some time whether they were a health threat.

Millions of people were affected and little information is a recipe for fear, rumours and anger.”

Scientist: seeking publicity; accuracy optional

I’m the first to admit I’m a media whore; but I always lede with credibility and references to support what I’m spewing. thomas.dolby.scienceChapman got a little heat from my blog post yesterday but it goes back to basics: surveys can suck, and PR before peer review really sucks. I got trashed to the cheap seats on Dr. Oz a couple of years ago because I wouldn’t  bullshit. According to a new paper in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), academics should be made accountable for exaggerations in press releases about theure]work. For anyone with medical training, mainstream media coverage of science can be an uncomfortable read. It is common to find correlational findings misrepresented as denoting causation, for example, or findings in animal studies confidently exaggerated to make claims about treatment for humans. But who is responsible for these misrepresentations? In the linked paper (doi:10.1136/bmj.g7015) Sumner and colleagues found that much of the exaggeration in mainstream media coverage of health research—statements that went beyond findings in the academic paper—was already present in the press release sent out to journalists by the academic institution itself.1

Sumner and colleagues identified all 462 press releases on health research from 20 leading UK universities over one year. They traced 668 associated news stories and the original academic papers that reported the scientific findings. Finally, they assessed the press releases and the news articles for exaggeration, defined as claims going beyond those in the peer reviewed paper.

Since coding for exaggeration could be subjective, the authors’ structured appraisal focused on three areas: making causal claims from correlational findings in observational data, making inference about humans from studies on other animals, and giving direct advice to readers about behaviour change. This allowed an assessment of where each exaggeration first appeared. If a news story claimed a new treatment for humans, for example, but the study was on mice—and the academic paper made no claim about humans—then did the exaggeration first appear in the press release, or the newspaper article? scienceOver a third of press releases contained exaggerated advice, causal claims, or inference to humans. When press releases contained exaggeration, 58% to 86% of derived news stories contained similar exaggeration, compared with exaggeration rates of 10% to 18% in news articles when the press releases were not exaggerated.

This was an onerous piece of research, with coding done by a large team of students, but the high concordance in exaggeration scores between blinded raters is reassuringly high. Considerable quantitative research has already been done on the misrepresentation of medical research in mainstream media, although the amount of work funded in this area probably does not represent the true impact of media coverage on health risk behaviour and patients’ informed decision making.

The HealthNewsReview website in the United States offers ongoing critical appraisal of mainstream media coverage on treatments and tests. A published summary of its first 500 appraisals2 found that most news articles failed to satisfactorily discuss the quality of the evidence or to quantify the absolute magnitude of benefits and harms. Projects in Canada3 and Australia4 reported similar findings, and an analysis of all coverage for trastuzumab (Herceptin) found uncritically positive reporting.5

In terms of story selection, evidence suggests that the media are more inclined to report exceptional causes of death67; that bad news generates more coverage than good news and that observational studies are more likely to be covered than trials8 (perhaps because observational research more often reflects the kinds of lifestyle choices that patients can make themselves).

Press releases have also been studied: 58% from US research institutions failed to include caveats about important methodological shortcomings in the research that was being promoted9; and a cohort study of five major medical journals found that lower quality press releases were associated with lower quality news coverage.10 This is not a peripheral matter. Evidence suggests that media coverage can have an effect on the uptake of treatments and services1112; and even on subsequent academic citations.13 Because of this, it is useful to think about practical positive steps.

Improving standards among journalists has long been tried; best practice guidelines already exist for academics, journals,14 and institutional press officers,15 but these are routinely ignored. In addition to these strategies, it might be useful to build on the features of academic journals that improve standards and earn trust in science: accountability, transparency, and feedback. Accountability is straightforward: all academic press releases should have named authors, including both the press officers involved and the individual named academics from the original academic paper. This would create professional reputational consequences for misrepresenting scientific findings in a press release, which would parallel the risks around misrepresenting science in an academic paper.

Transparency is similarly straightforward. Press releases are a crucial part of communicating science, often more impactful than the paper, but they are often only sent privately to journalists and are rarely linked from academic papers. Instead, press releases should be treated as a part of the scientific publication, linked to the paper, referenced directly from the academic paper being promoted, and presented through existing infrastructure as online data appendices, in full view of peers. Feedback requires a modest extension of current norms. At present, researchers who exaggerate in an academic paper are publicly corrected—and held to account—in commentaries and letters to the publishing journal, through the process of post-publication peer review. This could be extended. Press releases are a key part of the publication of the science: journals should reflect this and publish commentary and letters about misrepresentations in the press release, just as they publish commentary on the academic paper itself. Collectively this would produce an information trail and accountability among peers and the public.

An immediate—albeit mischievous—opportunity also exists. Sumner and colleagues were good enough to share 462 individual coding sheets online and were generous enough to avoid naming and shaming the worst offenders. A motivated student with a spare afternoon could write the analytical code needed to extract data on those academics and institutions associated with the worst exaggerations and publish their names online, along with details of the transgressions. If funding could be found, then extending this project for a further two years would offer a much larger prize: the discovery of whether an ongoing ranking, prominently presented in public, might change academic behaviour and create an environment where researchers finally act to prevent patients and the public being routinely misled.

Notes Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7465 Footnotes Research, doi:10.1136/bmj.g7015 Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: I receive income from public engagement work, writing, and speaking on problems in science, including problems in media reporting on health research. Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed. References Sumner P, Vivian-Griffiths S, Boivin J, Williams A, Venetis CA, Davies A, et al. The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ2014;349:g7015. Find Text @ NCSUAbstract/FREE Full TextSchwitzer G. How do US journalists cover treatments, tests, products, and procedures? An evaluation of 500 stories. PLoS Med2008;5:e95. Find Text @ NCSUCrossRefMedline Cassels A, Hughes MA, Cole C, Mintzes B, Lexchin J, McCormack JP. Drugs in the news: an analysis of Canadian newspaper coverage of new prescription drugs. CMAJ2003;168:1133-7. Find Text @ NCSUAbstract/FREE Full Text Smith DE, Wilson AJ, Henry DA. Monitoring the quality of medical news reporting: early experience with media doctor. Med J Aust2005;183:190-3. Find Text @ NCSUMedlineWeb of Science Wilson PM, Booth AM, Eastwood A, Watt IS. Deconstructing media coverage of trastuzumab (Herceptin): an analysis of national newspaper coverage. J R Soc Med2008;101:125-32. Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.Abstract/FREE Full Text Harrabin R. Health in the news: risk, reporting and influence. King’s Fund, 2003. Forsyth AJM. Distorted? A quantitative exploration of drug fatality reports in the popular press. Int J Drug Policy2001;12:435-53. Find Text @ NCSUCrossRef Bartlett C, Sterne J, Egger M. What is newsworthy? Longitudinal study of the reporting of medical research in two British newspapers. BMJ2002;325:81-4. Find Text @ NCSUAbstract/FREE Full Text Woloshin S, Schwartz LM, Casella SL, Kennedy AT, Larson RJ. Press releases by academic medical centers: not so academic? Ann Intern Med2009;150:613-8. Find Text @ NCSUCrossRefMedlineWeb of Science Schwartz LM, Woloshin S, Andrews A, Stukel TA. Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage: retrospective cohort study. BMJ2012;344:d8164. Find Text @ NCSUAbstract/FREE Full Text Chapman S, McLeod K, Wakefield M, Holding S. Impact of news of celebrity illness on breast cancer screening: Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis. Med J Aust2005;183:247-50. Find Text @ NCSUMedlineWeb of Science Grilli R, Ramsay C, Minozzi S. Mass media interventions: effects on health services utilisation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2002;1:CD000389. Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.Medline Phillips DP, Kanter EJ, Bednarczyk B, Tastad PL. Importance of the lay press in the transmission of medical knowledge to the scientific community. N Engl J Med1991;325:1180-3. Find Text @ NCSUCrossRefMedlineWeb of Science Committee on Publication Ethics. International standards for authors, clause 8.4. 2011. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine Public Relations Association. STEMPRA guide to being a press officer. STEMPRA, 2009.

Universities can suck

I loved my time at the University of Guelph and Kansas State University – to a point.

bill-murray-lost-in-translationAt KState, I met my wife, Amy, we have a daughter, and I was made full professor.

But I know, at both institutions, the people around me thought I was a freak, and when I moved to Brisbane to support Amy, the salary became attractive so I was unceremoniously fired.

KState now brags about its virtual campus, but they couldn’t handle me doing more work than others, electronically.

Gotta be there to meet and greet, because if you follow KState president Kirk Schulz’s blog, that’s all he does to bring in the bucks.

Amy and I both got this message in the past week:

“Your K-State eID will lose access as of (December 03, 2014) to your K-State email account. That resource is intended solely for use by K-State faculty, staff, students, and sponsored users. This action is being taken because K-State records indicate you are not a currently enrolled student or a current employee.  You will retain access to your eProfile, K-State Online, any student records in iSIS, and any personnel records in HRIS as long as you keep your eID active.”

Don’t expect a donation to the alumni fund. My e-mail is I’m in Japan this week (right, not exactly as shown) which could be a great opportunity to promote KState, but, narrow vision doesn’t go far, no matter how much it’s dressed up by PR flunkies.


PR amateurs: DC restaurant, closed with 17 health violations, forbids reporter to look under its tables

After being cited for rodent droppings and 16 other health violations, the Cosi at Metro Center in Washington, D.C., has forbidden WUSA9’s Russ Ptacek from looking under its tables, calling the inquiry “unwarranted” and accusing the investigative reporter of causing “a great deal of distress.”

As summarized by Lucia Graves of The Huffington Post, the incident comes shortly after D.C. Health inspectors deemed the restaurant an images“imminent health hazard,” with violations ranging from undersized sinks to chicken and other comestibles being stored at improperly high temperatures.

Upon visiting the establishment with a videographer in tow, Ptacek was told to leave the premises immediately. Later a regional manager followed up with an indignant email, which went viral after Ptacek posted it to Facebook.

“We would appreciate it if you do not disturb our customers, partners and management team with unwarranted investigations,” wrote regional manager Yasmin Contreras in an email that was later shared on Facebook 140 times and reached an audience of 20,000. “Actions such as looking under our furniture or asking questions aggressively do a great deal of distress towards our customers and our Cosi team.”

A part-owner of Cosi has since apologized for the letter, and a brief Friday visit from The Huffington Post was handled very differently. “Feel free to take a look around,” local manager Lu Story said upon HuffPost’s arrival. “The Health Department came in. They inspected us. They gave us a clean bill of health. We were able to satisfy any of the violations they saw previously.”

He declined to allow the Huffington Post to take pictures of him or interview customers, things which he claimed as a franchise he was not licensed to allow. He did, however, invite HuffPost to look for mouse droppings under his tables.

“Help yourself,” he said with a wave of his hand.

No confidence: Canada’s food safety rules good, but must be followed, enforced

Canada has an excellent international reputation for crafting rules and regulations and a lousy international reputation for verification and enforcement.

This has been a truism, along with the best health care in the world – it’s not – for the 50 years I’ve been around; others can speak to no-bs4more dated legacies.

Canadian Press picked up on this theme and applied it to food safety.

Veteran cattleman George Graham has a common-sense solution for how to prevent a repeat of an E. coli outbreak and extensive product recall in the fall that made 18 people sick, threw thousands out of work and smeared the Canadian beef brand.

Officials who regulate and work in the industry must simply do their jobs properly.

“We have an extremely good product and we have a very good food-safety program compared to other places around the world,” Graham said from his feedlot in southern Alberta where his family has raised cattle since 1918.

“We just need to be more vigilant that the job is getting done.”

It’s more complicated. The bugs are constantly changing, better science is developed, and the rules need to be flexible. And the best will always go above and beyond the minimal standard of government.

Professor Rick Holley, a University of Manitoba food safety expert, said there is no excuse for the sanitation problems that led to the closure of the Brooks plant.

He said Canada is respected around the world for its progressive food safety rules. The problem, he suggested, is that those rules are not as vigorously enforced as they should be.

How could 40 inspectors and six veterinarians at the XL plant somehow miss the problems?

Ron Glaser of Canada Beef – the marketing folks – said the industry is developing an information campaign that it is expected cow-faceto roll out in the new year, to reassure consumers.

It is likely to include information on how producers take care in raising cattle and an assurance that Canada has an extremely safe food system.

And it will be void of data.

The days of trust us, we’re farmers, processors, retailers, restaurants, has long passed.

If people want to know where their beef comes from as an indicator of confidence, put a url on the package so consumers can look it up; link to the farm and slaughterhouse; show them what happens; and, because farmers, processors, retailers, restaurants or even government inspectors have X-ray bacteria-sensing goggles, make test result data publicly available. McDonald’s demands that data from the slaughterhouses that provide beef for their burgers, why shouldn’t consumers have the same access?

Inexplicable Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the federal government has faith in JBS USA, the company that’s now managing the Brooks XL plant in Alberta.

“JBS is a tremendous corporate partner. They brought an era of food culture to that plant that we haven’t seen for quite some time so we look forward to them and moving on to the future.”

I get creeped when Ritz starts talking about food culture.

And I tried to parse the quote but my head started spinning, so I’ll leave that to my elders as well.

Top 5 Records presents: top 30 food blunders of 2012

‘Tis the season for end-of-year lists, for which I have at least 10 reasons to avoid. But I can reprint one, because it takes no effort and has pretty pictures.

Huffington Post concludes the food industry “needs a new publicist.”

The complete slide show is available at:

30 sickened: Miramichi E. coli outbreak linked to Romaine lettuce

The Sponge-Bob-Colbert leafy greens cone of silence has been partially peeled back after investigators in New Brunswick (that’s in Canada) determined an outbreak of E. coli O157 in April was linked to Romaine lettuce.

CBC News reports the Department of Health released results of a case control study on Friday that examined 55 people, including 18 individuals who were sick and 37 people who were not sick.

Dr. Eilish Cleary, the chief medical officer of health, said all of those in the study who were sick with E. coli appear to have consumed romaine lettuce.

"The lettuce was used in salads, as an ingredient in wraps and hamburgers and as a garnish. These results indicate a strong likelihood that contaminated lettuce was served at the restaurant,” Cleary said in a statement.

The Public Health Agency of Canada helped the province’s health department on the control study. The experts focused on the food items eaten by those who ate at Jungle Jim’s in Miramichi between April 23 and 26, 2012.

The federal agency became aware that cases matching the E. coli strain involved in the Miramichi outbreak had also been identified in Quebec and California, according to the province’s statement.

Now that would be something to follow up on. So while the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement folks were wining and dining Canadian journalists last month (not so much journalists, more like hacks) , I wonder how many asked about the Romaine-related outbreaks? There was also the Schnucks salad bar outbreak that sickened 58 people in the U.S. Midwest last fall.

A table of leafy green related outbreaks is available at