During last week’s media conference on the winter plans for controlling Covid-19, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty was faced with important questions such as whether personal choice for masks is enough, would vaccine passports be introduced, and who would qualify for booster jabs. He was also asked, what may seem from the outset a more frivolous question, on his thoughts on Nicki Minaj’s recent tweets about the vaccines.
For those who spend less time on social media than I: rapper Nicki tweeted that she would not be attending this year’s Met Gala as she was yet unvaccinated and would remain so until she did more of her own research. She then told her 22.7 million followers that her cousin’s friend in Trinidad suffered from swollen testicles and impotence (and a subsequent abandoned wedding, what a week for the poor guy) after receiving the vaccine.
Nicki could have gotten away with her first tweet simply citing a desire for personal research, it’s her second which encompasses all the dangers of hearsay which has sparked controversy. When asked, Whitty shared his thoughts on those who spread what he felt are ill-informed and dangerous views on medical issues to the masses, describing them as shameful.
Few could have predicted what ensued: Nicki had apparently seen the press conference and responded on social media to Whitty and the Prime Minister with an indisputably bizarre voice message in a fake British accent – essentially, letting them know that she’d seen the conference and was not happy about being ‘called out’. This opened the floodgates to hundreds more press articles, memes and social media storms – as a funny but misinformed tweet escalated into pop star vs British politicians spat.
Now, aside from being pretty entertaining, what has this whole episode taught us?
Firstly, it has shown that politics and pop culture are not separate universes. It is wise for politicians to have an awareness of what’s going on in pop culture. Boris Johnson later stated that he was ‘not as familiar with the works of Nicki Minaj as I probably should be’, and Whitty’s answer in the press conference was aimed at anybody who spreads misinformation: hinting, though of course I can’t say for sure, that he may not have known the whole parameters of the then infamous tweet. Although Whitty’s tactic to address everyone rather than Minaj herself was a good one to avoid targeting one (powerful) person on national television, it highlights a gap in knowledge which would be wise to fill.
Secondly, this is an exhibition of the lesser-discussed dangers of ‘influencer culture’. Many of these debates look at online harms in terms of misleading influential posts which pose as reality but are, in fact, a paid-for advertisement; and whether influencers should be regulated in terms of what they can promote to their audiences of potentially vulnerable users (such as the promotion of skinny teas to children). This incident has highlighted that those whose fame garners them a large audience, whether they are qualified or not, have the power to effect life-threatening decisions. In sum: the power of the influencer is not to be underestimated.
Finally, it’s a lesson in reputation management. Johnson and Whitty’s reputation improved with their straightforward responses on celebrities who spread opinions not backed by science. More interestingly, it is Minaj’s own narrative which has spiralled out of control. She never explicitly stated that the reason she hadn’t yet received the vaccine was purely because of the friend’s-cousin’s-testicle incident. She simply stated that the Met Gala was not enough of a pull for her to get vaccinated, but that she would when she needed to go on tour. The testicle tweet went viral because, quite frankly, it was quintessentially funny fodder for the internet; and the public and media put two and two together to get five and the story then was that Nicki wasn’t getting vaccinated because of this one story. She has tweeted to try to correct and highlight this, but this hasn’t picked up traction – the story was already out the door and running away from her, and as a result she’s lost control of her own narrative.
For those of us trained in issues and risk management, we know how easily is it for one misunderstanding to snowball into a crisis and damage your reputation: it’s vital to have a thorough pre-prepared plan and a carefully constructed narrative that looks at every potential risk and fall out.
Nicki, if you’re ever looking for support in your next engagement with UK politicians, you know where we are.
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