Swine flu communications

April 30, 2009

Yes, we are incredibly busy right now with multiple clients and agencies dealing with public communication about swine flu. Suddenly, a number of other agencies who have been investigating our system are showing urgent interest. I’m also preparing for a national teleseminar on swine flu communications that I’ve been asked to present by a major professional association. Anyone who has case studies–good and bad–to share please send them on to me, it would be much appreciated.

A few quick comments about what I am observing about communications today. I have to admit, Twitter is my best source for on-going information flow. CDC use of Twitter has been great but much faster info coming from the new news sources like /breakingnews that keep up a constant flow by consolidating news related Twitter feeds.

How to set the right tone for communicating with the public about the pandemic: follow President Obama’s lead. I was very impressed with his news conference last night. He communicated detailed information, emphasized to keep perspective, provided genuine reassurance, discussed specific actions being taken, praised his predecessor for the preparations that had been made. He just hit all the right notes in my mind. I do believe, based on performance to date, he may surpass The Great Communicator’s reputation for effective public engagement.

Keep perspective. This one is hard. One public health official kept trying to get the message across that 100 people die each and every day from the flu. In the US we’ve had one death so far from H1N1. It is a tough balancing act to communicate the reality of the scope when we don’t really know how far this will go. But it is important to keep communicating the facts including the limited scope of this thing right now, even while not downplaying the seriousness to those affected or the risks of much bigger outbreak.

Pandemic in the instant information age–that is what is really interesting here given what I just said about perspective. We live in a time not just of hair trigger outrage, but hair trigger panic. We live in a time of incredibly high distrust of those whose hands are on the levers of power. And we live in a time of virtual instant, continuous information flow from all over. The pandemic of public distraction and maybe even unwarranted panic may be more telling and potentially more dangerous than the virus. As an example, Pres Obama faced the question about sealing the borders last night. The cost and impact would be staggering. No doubt such an act would cost lives (as people need to travel for urgent health needs, etc.) You need to have serious basis for taking such a step. Yet, it is a question on people’s minds. I don’t want to downplay the risks or what is happening but the truly fascinating thing to me is how risks are perceived in the age of Twitter, social media and constantly present communication about dangers and fears.

Finally, swine flu goes to H1N1. What a lesson there. Can’t believe the effectiveness of the pork lobby in getting this change made to the degree they have in the midst of this situation. Lesson for all those industries that might have their name attached to a bad thing–work on it now, now when it is on everyone’s lips. If there is a loganberry flu strain, loganberry folks better get to work on it.


2 Responses to “Swine flu communications”

  1. davefleet Says:

    Excellent points. You’re right about the pork lobby – I’m astonished that they managed to get this done. Wonder if chicken pox will be next to have a name change…

    All of the hype and hysteria right now makes me wonder about the reaction if this does die down without becoming a worst-case scenario. If the public health measures work, will people consider this a false alarm? Will it be harder to get their attention next time?

  2. Jacquie Says:

    But will anyone REALLY call it H1N1? Yes, the pork lobby is big, but that name doesn’t have quite the nice ring that swine flu (pork plague) does… And you can’t wear those cool face masks with pig snouts on them if you change the name! Good luck getting the average Joe to say use other names.

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