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Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx Are Diving Into Social Media to Reach Young Adults
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President Donald Trump’s evening virus briefings have been a big TV ratings hit, but missing from that audience is a critical demographic: the younger generation of people who tuned out of broadcast and cable television a long time ago.
So Trump’s top public health officials, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, are going where young people go — to social media, podcasts, online video and TV talk shows that draw diverse viewers, such as those of Trevor Noah and Showtime personalities Desus and Mero. NBA star Stephen Curry’s Instagram interview of the 79-year-old Fauci may be the biggest winner so far, having garnered millions of hits and innumerable mentions on all sorts of media.
Administration officials say the strategy is a must to reach young people, who Fauci says are critical to slowing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s too early to gauge whether the approach is actually influencing young adults to stay home and maintain a distance from others. But the interviews are certainly entertaining and sometimes outrageous while imparting information.
“The media strategy to reach all these pockets of people is really important when there is no centralized news source,” said Lilly Burns, executive producer of “Desus & Mero.” At the same time, she added, joking, “It’s terrifying to think people are getting their news from ‘Desus & Mero.’”
The need for a new public relations approach became painfully apparent last month when videos surfaced of college-age youth cavorting at close distances on Florida beaches during spring break and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
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A study by thePew Research Center showed that young people aren’t following news about the coronavirus as closely as old people. About one-fifth of all people between the age of 18 and 29 said they weren’t following the news at all, as of mid-March. Only 7% of people between 50 and 64 weren’t following it, and 3% of people over 65.
“It was clear to the task force that certain age groups were not tuned into the mediums where task force members were frequently visiting, whether the press briefings or standard cable and broadcast shows,” said Devin O’Malley, spokesman for the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
The 33-year-old O’Malley has played an instrumental role in connecting Fauci and Birx with the new media. A longtime fan of Barstool Sports, a popular media company, he reached out to the hosts of one of its podcasts, “Pardon My Take,” who agreed to interview Fauci last month.
Bryant Barr, president of Curry’s branding company, SC30 Inc., heard the episode and thought it was a brilliant way to educate people in a nonpolitical setting.
Curry’s company chose to stream the interview from his home on Instagram, where he commands 30 million followers, mainly young people. They fielded questions on social media ahead of the conversation to identify hot topics to address, such as the availability of testing and how Covid-19 differs from the flu.
“Our goal was to spread as much factual information to as many young people as possible,” Barr said.
Of course, the glitches that are common now on even the most professional home video linkups were present here as well. A finger of someone adjusting the camera briefly blocked Fauci and the mini-basketball hoop set up behind him for the interview.
Fauci also appeared on “Desus & Mero” to reach whatShowtime says is one of its youngest and most diverse audiences. Some 60% of its viewers are between the ages of 18 and 49, and 40% are African American, the network said.
Along with questions on the virus, hosts Desus Nice and The Kid Mero asked Fauci about his sleeping habits and support for the New York Yankees, trying to humanize a doctor most people see on TV standing behind Trump.
Fauci’s appearances have made him somewhat of an internet celebrity. He has been mentioned 4.6 million times across social media in the past month, more than three times the mentions of Joe Exotic from the Netflix phenomenon “Tiger King,” according to communications firm Brunswick Group LLP.
Birx has been busy speaking to young people, too, joining the YouTube show “The Morning Toast” and doing a podcast for The Skimm, a female-focused newsletter
More is coming: Officials are working on scheduling Birx with “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and Fauci with Oprah Winfrey’s new show that streams on Apple TV+.
“When we’re talking about a global pandemic, there really is no channel through which you don’t want to get the message out,” said Raul Damas, a partner at Brunswick Group.