H1N1 Flu Communications–my Quick Guide

May 1, 2009

Since we are working with literally dozens of agencies and organizations involved in communication activities surrounding this outbreak, I’ve prepared a quick guide. It is there to help those in our organization help our clients, but may be of help to anyone dealing with this potentially fast breaking situation. It’s not comprehensive so I’m sure there will be some comments of critical things I missed.

Quick Guide for Effective Flu Communications

1) Be fast.

The three basic rules apply. There are multiple ways of getting relevant information today. When audiences are hungry for information they may want to get it from you, but if they do not find you are providing the latest, most relevant information, they will go elsewhere. It is much better to say: “This is what we know right now” even if it is incomplete, than to wait for the complete story before delivering it. Crisis communication is becoming more like Twitter all the time. Audiences need continuous, very brief updates of information. Be now with a little rather than late with a lot.

2) Go direct.

Your website, email distributions, use of social media sites are critically important in communicating directly with your key audiences. Public information today is no longer just about sending press releases and holding news conferences. Those who have prepared in advance by developing good lists of stakeholders, internal audiences, media and community contacts are way ahead of the game.

3) Be transparent.

There is no tolerance today for hiding anything, covering up, or even for language that suggests spinning. Effective communication today is simple, direct, straightforward, open and honest. The tone and style need to match the audiences recognizing some significant differences in communication styles in different audiences. Basic rule—bad news and good news both need to come from you, not someone else.

4) Use multiple forms.

Today’s audiences use a multiplicity of forms of communication. Mass media, email, websites, and all kinds of different social media. The CDC for one recognizes this multi-mode world. Their social media site is filled with options allowing those seeking information to choose the methods they prefer. http://www.cdc.gov/socialmedia/?s_cid=tw_eh_28

5) Be specific about actions taken.
Trust is built first on right and appropriate actions. If your organization is taking concrete steps to help prevent the spread of the illness, communicate those actions clearly and with detail. Websites allow for detailed information so your releases and updates can be brief but point back to the very specific details about actions taken.

6) Allow for and encourage interactivity.

The fear of inundation with questions is causing some to shy away from methods that allow people to ask questions or make comments. Resist this temptation. There are tools that can help facilitate fast, direct responses to questions. Knowing you can get answers to your question quickly and easily is a great reassurance. Monitor those questions closely because as they emerge you can answer them with your next update or push them to out to your contact lists. By doing so, you will anticipate what people are asking, surprise them with your forethought and greatly reduce the number of incoming calls and emails.

7) Don’t reinvent the wheel.

There is a tremendous amount of good information available on the outbreak (like the interactive Google map tracing new cases). The CDC site provides excellent resources. Use what is available, provide links, RSS feeds, summaries and access to resources.

8) Keep perspective.

While there is a tremendous amount of interest in H1N1 right now, it is highly uncertain if it will prove to be a minor blip or a very serious issue. It’s appropriate for agencies to take it seriously, but not to contribute to paranoia or panic. There few confirmed deaths from this illness, even while approximately 100 people a day die in the US from the flu. Keeping a balance between reassurance, proactive measures, precautions and appropriate response activities is difficult. Keep perspective and help your audiences keep perspective, too.

9) Monitor, monitor.

The tools for monitoring new information plus what others are saying about you have exploded. Many are free but monitoring is a worthwhile investment. As SunTzu pointed in the 6th Century BC, intelligence is the key to winning the battle, including the battle for trust and confidence.

10) Practice what you preach—go virtual.

If your communication team does not now and cannot now operate virtually, that is from their homes or social isolation, you need to address that need very soon. Technology exists to support virtual communications operation. Don’t get caught in the irony of gathering a group of communicators together for the purpose of advising others not to gather together.

For those interested in seeing the different agencies using our technology to support their flu communications, we will be posting a list of sites at www.piersystems.com soon.

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