Tuesday, October 13, 2009

H1N1 Communications--the impact of personal experience

It's funny how things change when you get personally involved. Like H1N1 communications. I've been talking to clients, building websites and making national presentations on H1N1 communications. Then my family got hit. Two of my adult children, three of my seven grandchildren and now my wife, who was hit hardest of all. She was accompanying me on a trip to several speaking engagements when she got hit hard. Spending three days in a hotel when you have a fever and terrible sore throat is not a lot of fun.

What it showed me however that as much communication and miscommunication there has been around this outbreak, there are significant gaps in public information. One of the keys to effective crisis communication is anticipating the questions and having the answers readily available in ways that people want to get them. But I discovered a number of questions for which answers were not so readily available:
- how do I know it is H1N1 and not seasonal flu?
- how do I know when to call the doctor?
-how will the doctor know that it is H1N1?
-I know that people are dying from this but how do I tell how serious it is?
- If it is not much different than the regular or seasonal flu, why is there so much hype and concern about it?
- If I don't need to go to the doctor, what can I do at home to treat it?
- Why should we go to the doctor and sit in the waiting room infecting others when what they told us could have been told over the phone?
- Why are they insisting on social distancing except when it comes to going into the doctor's office?
- Why did the little kids get over it so quick and my wife have it for over a week?

I could keep going on. One thing is clear, in an environment of fear the hunger for information becomes intense. And the patience with anything other than what is sought and needed right now is very limited. It makes all of Dr. Vince Covello's teachings about risk and crisis communication very relevant.

Now with personal experience I went back and looked at how some were dealing with the much needed information. As mentioned by many, the CDC continues to do a great job with communicating about this. But they are struggling with a common problem and that is there is so much information, how do I quickly find what I am looking for. My most urgent need was to find out the answer to my first question which is how do I know if this is swine flu? (By the way, I find myself and everyone referring to it in normal conversation as swine flu while when talking more officially I try to do the politically correct thing and refer to it as H1N1--fact is, in real life, this is swine flu--much apologies to the pig industry.) Going to the CDC website specific to this outbreak, I have to search for a bit to find my answer to that question.

Much better in terms of my most urgent questions is the new Microsoft website called H1N1 Response Center. It should be carefully studied as a model for providing important information for urgent communication. All over it, including from the very beginning is a big orange button that says "Take flu self assessment." I did, and very quickly came to the answer I was looking for.

This site was launched just a few days ago and you might ask why is Microsoft positioning itself as an expert in this outbreak. It may very well have to do with the announcement they made a few months ago about a new product relating to notification and crisis communication. I found out about the new site watching a news story on Fox News where they had a doctor discussing this new site. She absolutely ripped it one side and down the other. Her point was that you shouldn't rely on a website for health advice--you should call your doctor.

You will note if you take the flu self-assessment that if the answer is yes, the response is to call your doctor. But I couldn't disagree more with that doctor on Fox. The web is one of the most important tools for people educating themselves and also helping themselves. Whether the profession likes it or not, it will be an increasingly important way for people to get access to much needed health information. This should be welcomed by the profession, not fought. In this case, and now with personal experience, I think I would disagree with Microsoft's direction to call the doctor. There should be more conditions put on it that regarding how high the fever, length of time with fever, etc. When we called the doctor over the weekend, he told us the necessary basics, lots of rest, lots of fluids, Ibuprofen for fever and an antihistamine for the congestion. And, he said, if breathing becomes an issue, come in right away. Turns out the biggest problem in healthy people is pneumonia. That was a very important piece of information that is not so readily available.

There are lots of lessons learned here but I'll focus on the main one: personal experience helps you plan the communication response. We can't all have nor do we want to have personal experience in being a victim of earthquake, hurricane, terrorist attack or swine flu. But we can think through very carefully, use our imagination, and talk very intentionally and intently with those who are or who have been victims. In doing so we will prepare much more effectively.

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