Monday, October 26, 2009

H1N1 Swine Flu--the First Web 2.0 Health Crisis

We can learn alot about the state of emergency management communication by observing closely the public information around the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak.

Along with Stephen Davidow, I wrote an article on pandemic flu communication for the leading public relations industry publication, the PR Strategist. I'm also conducting two webinars this week, one on pandemic communications for PRSA and the other for Progressive Healthcare Conferences on Twitter, Social Media and Healthcare Crisis Communication.

Here are a few quick observations about public information and the current outbreak:
1) What did the media do? First, in April, they scared the bejesus out of everyone, then they dropped the subject like a hot rock, and now the story is all about not enough vaccine. OK, that's an over simplification but not entirely wrong. The point is to help you understand that their job is not to provide vital public information about an important topic like this, but to get eyes on the screen or on their website, or sell papers. Only what is immediate has any real media interest. And if it is scary or creates FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) it is going to get some play. But if a balloon boy story shows up, the flu story will go away quickly. The point is the media will come and go and do what they need to do to create audiences. In the meantime, they may help or hurt the effort of agencies to get key messages across to the media.

2) People are getting their best information from the internet. Yes, people heard about it from local news, particularly local TV news, but a Pew research study showed that audiences indicated the best information they got about this situation is from the internet. They are getting it from all kinds of sources. When my wife got quite sick from H1N1 I found Microsoft's "H1N1 Swine Flu Response Center" very helpful. Much more so than the CDC which I and many others have been praising for their outstanding information flow and use of social media. I found on YouTube helpful instructions on how to cough without spreading germs. As commented here before, people are increasingly using the internet's unofficial sources to get info, not necessarily relying on your agency or the official voices. This is really nothing new in that people have always talked to each other about things important to them. But now rather than just in the coffee shop or in the hallways outside your office, they are talking to each other online. Word of mouth gone crazy.

3) Is there too much information? One thing I discovered in this incident is how much your perspective changes depending on your personal involvement. As an observer of agency communication and media communication, I thought overall there was a lot of good information out there. Maybe too much even. After all, it was affecting people in other states, countries, communities. My wife was with me on a business trip when she got sick and got quite sick in a hurry. Suddenly I found I just couldn't find the urgent information I needed. Simple questions like: how do I know it is the swine flu? When should I call the doctor? Is there anything I can do on my own? Why did I not get it and several others in my family did? The point is that my perspective changed, my questions changed, my urgency changed. I found what worked for me and what didn't. What that means is that communicators need to either be awfully good at putting themselves in a victim's shoes to understand the urgency and content of the questions that will need to be answered. Or, they need to be victims themselves or talk to those who are.

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