Teen’s study makes iPod face the music online

That the Internet is tinder to match was obvious on Friday when media reports started surfacing online that Apple’s iPod music player causes heart pacemakers to malfunction.

The reports were based on a study conducted by a 17-year-old high school student with help from a University of Michigan professor. Less than 24 hours after results were presented May 10 to heart specialists at Michigan State University, roughly 200 media reports had appeared on Google News. The headlines ranged from Reuters’ “iPods can make pacemakers malfunction: study” to Canada’s CBC News “iPods Make the Heart Skip a beat.” The news was reported as factual and Apple’s side of the story was missing. Apple needs to do some medical research and, equally important, take some word of mouth marketing advice.

Let’s first recap some of the study findings as reported by Reuters. Jay Thaker, the study’s lead author and a student at Okemos High School in Okemos, MI, tested the effect of portable music devices on 100 pacemaker-fitted patients whose mean age is 77. Electrical interference was detected half of the time when the iPod was held two inches from the patient’s chest for five to 10 seconds. At times the iPods caused interference when held 18 inches from the chest. According to the Reuters story, interference with the telemetry equipment caused the device to misread the heart’s pacing. In one incident, the pacemaker completely stopped working.

But here’s what’s interesting. The study examined only the iPod and no other portable music players. No doubt some of the reporters may have tried to contact Apple for its response. But the other side of the story was missing in these reports, at least in the first 24 hours. This is a public relations nightmare and perhaps could affect iPod sales, although not by much; not too many septuagenarians buy the product.

So what can Apple do given this bad press online? Jim Nail, buzz marketing expert and chief strategy and marketing officer at TNS Media Intelligence/Cymfony, said the study’s sample was big enough to be taken seriously. It also had the right author credentials, despite the teenage lead.

“You have to tread this fine line between questioning the veracity and understanding the validity of the reports,” Mr. Nail said.

Clearly what Apple needs to do is contact the study authors and volunteer to become involved in more research. It should let the public know, online and offline, that it is cooperating in further studies. The electronics giant should study drug and car companies for their approach to damage control and restitution. The stakes can be high: Apple, as of last month, has shipped 100 million iPods.

It’s doubtful anyone at this stage can make a case for massive iPod recalls, not especially when there’s research out there claiming cell phone use can scramble the brain. But Apple and players of its girth can devote some marketing time and talent to generate an appropriate word of mouth response to such Internet-amplified reports. Reach out to media outlets, technology and medical blogs, fan clubs and influencers. Add messaging online and brief store personnel – and cancel the vacations of its in-house attorneys.

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