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Swine Flu Post-mortem, Volume 1

May 13, 2009

pigs My, my. So, anything happen while I was away? You don’t say!

How about this one? My folks went to Cancun and they brought back for me was the swine flu?

Well, that’s not working–okay then, let’s hit the high points. Pandemic strain of influenza, a couple of hundred cases in the US, then the name changed, a few hundred more cases, then the name changed again, then nobody really died from it and they figured out that it had seasonal flu-like morbidity and low mortality in the US and then it went away. Well, if you were watching the news that’s what you’d know.

Fact is, it’s still going on, though probably not for too much longer in the US, but it absolutely scared the bejeezus out of epidemiologists and public health folks everywhere. Call it what you will: a dodged bullet, a warning shot, the first wave–whatever it is, it certainly provoked a reaction. And I can assure you that there is one concrete thing that came out of the swine H1N1 origin novel flu pandemic of May 2009–every hospital group and public health department has taken that old panflu plan off the shelf, dusted it off, and is in the process of doing a major re-write.

And that’s a good thing.

From my perspective, we learned a ton. For all of the adulation given to CDC public info people (who I do think did a pretty good job), they did a pretty terrible job. And yes, it is possible to reconcile my parenthetical with the explicit.  You see, all of our friendly neighborhood risk communicators and government spokespeople got in front of lots of cameras and delivered the right message. Ms. Hoskins? Ms. Reynolds? Let me be the first person to tell you, they did a great job and followed all of your tenets. The problem is that public health people and public health messages are still poorly understood by the public and the media doesn’t really care what you say, they’ve got a hot one dammit and they’re gonna run with it.

Deadly flu causes public health emergency

That was the headline of the Philadelphia Metro, a daily that is split about 50/50/25 between news/gossip/ads, two weeks ago. A week before any cases were in Pennsylvania, or even in any of the surrounding states! And the President went on TV and said it was early, but seemed mild, and to wash your hands more, and the DHS Secretary said the same thing, and the Acting CDC Director, and the Mayor, and on and on. Yet still: Deadly flu! Pandemic! Mexicans!

So yes, our risk comms folks did a great job staying on message, and giving the message in positive, empathetic ways and coupling them with notes about how the situation was evolving and as soon as we know you’ll know, and made sure to pass along tips that empowered the listeners/viewers to have an active role in preventing the spread of the disease. Really. Picture perfect. Kudos around, I’m not being facetious or sarcastic at all.

Though as my old comms professor used to say, communications is predicated on two points: a sender delivering the message and a receiver correctly decoding the message. If I stand here and tell you that there’s nothing to worry about, it’s not that bad, and if you start washing your hands, we’ll all be fine, but my statement is book-ended by FEAR! PANIC! WORRY! DEADLY! Well, then our poor little receivers might have a bit of trouble decoding the message. Or worse, they start disbelieving the message (something about government conspiracies and 1970’s vaccine experiments).

And now, let me hedge a bit more. This isn’t an indictment of the media in toto. Some folks out there–mostly the flu reporters like Declan Butler and Helen Branswell–did their usual great job. And the folks that asked questions on the CDC media calls, too. Like the mythical “some say,” and “other people,” I’m laying my complaints today at the feet of the amorphous “media.”

But I know I can’t ask them to change. So, I’m looking at the public health folks to change. We did everything exactly how we thought it should be done. And it didn’t work that well. How can we change our messaging strategies to accomplish a reasoned public health emergency response public information campaign that straddles the line separating panic! and move along, nothing to see here?

Now do you see why I’m excited (maybe too positive or strong a word?) about this dodged bullet, or warning shot, or first wave. Much like our planner brethren, we’ve seen our stuff in action, and found it … less than perfect. If our fatalistic “first wave” folks are right, we’ve got about four months to recoup and get ready for the next wave.

I don’t have an answer, but I’m definitely looking all of my PR/crisis comms friends for some help here. Any thoughts, comments? Feel free to tweet, email or comment below

Next up, online communications in a pandemic.

Image credit: Stolen (sorry), then baby-shakered up by me (poor taste, or adequate representation of the media’s response? I’m thinking Chris Farley in Tommy Boy with the biscuit.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2009 10:04 pm

    You got to this general topic (the post-mortem) before I could, work has been getting in the way of writing lately. One thing on the risk comms that I think would have made a significant difference, and one that bothered me a little, would have been having HHS a little more front-and-center in the early press conferences. Sure, they were rushing to confirm Sec. Sibelius and sure, Sec. Napolitano looked cool and collected, but why not slide RADM Vanderwagen (the Assistant Sec for Prep and Response at HHS) to the podium once in a while. This was clearly a “preparedness and response” issue, and as I understand it he is one of the people who have held over in appointed positions until their replacements can be named. Those first few days where it looked like a DHS show sent a slightly skewed message and let “the media” get off into the weeds of “why aren’t we sealing the border to keep the pig flu in Mexico?”

    My $0.02. I look forward to the other points you make as you continue.

    • May 15, 2009 10:28 am


      You’re actually not the first person that’s raised that point with me. I have two thoughts about why this could be. First, HHS Secretary Sebelius had not yet been confirmed by the Senate (nor Dr. Freidan appointed yet) at that point. In the absence of an Obama administrative official in Health, the Administration turned to a confirmed Secretary that could stand as a proxy for the Administration. Dr. Besser was included in those early press conferences to put a health face there, but was not the lead because he was not an Obama “face.”

      The second reason? The Obama Administration wanted to show they were throwing everything at this right off the bat, so they had both DHHS and DHS included. When Dr. Besser and Secretary Napolitano are speaking in the same room, the Secretary takes up a lot of the air. Joint press conferences tend to be less “joint” than intended.

      I don’t think we’ll ever know which of the two, but that was my two cents. I’d love to hear if you have any other thoughts.


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