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Quickly Noted: Swine Flu Risk Communication by Sandman

May 21, 2009

Today the journal Nature released a short commentary by Peter Sandman, the risk communication guru, on what CDC did right and what they did wrong as swine flu consumed our media. As always, it’s a phenomenal piece that I agree with almost completely. In fact, I’m accepting props from whomever will give them that I thought of–and wrote down–something that Peter Sandman thought of and later wrote down. Go me!

The basic gist of this commentary (provided openly by Nature when I accessed it) is that the folks at CDC did a great job hitting all of the high notes of CERC and generally did a great job responding to swine flu. His biggest problem was that CDC didn’t go far enough. In his eyes, this was one of those “teachable moments,” when people are listening to what you’re saying, really listening, so you should take advantage of the opportunity and tell them everything you can. In this case, specifically, we should have been saying, wash your hands! and try to stockpile some food and water, and figure out emergency child care choices. Basically, this could get worse–we don’t know yet if it will–but if it does, you’ll be ready for it.

This doesn’t answer my earlier question about how to deal with the media over-over-over-hyping the threat, but I saw something since then that is making me worry less and less about that. That is statistics on the number of hits that CDC webpages and widgets and Twitter tweets got during the response that were quoted during a DHHS call lead by @AndrewPWilson. People are beginning to get their information by themselves, and I can imagine this process will only accelerate and newscasts continue to overhype anything and everything (folks in the Northeast will recognize the SNOW EMERGENCY broadcasts that seem to happen monthly in the winter, to no effect).

In sum, I totally agree with Mr. Sandman, and thank him for validating me (Go me!). This was a teachable moment, and we missed it. Our next opportunity could very well come too late.

A longer version of the Commentary is available on Mr. Sandman’s website.

Photo credit: Mr. Sandman’s website, without permission unfortunately

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