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The Failure of H1N1 Communications

October 15, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about H1N1 communications lately.

I’ve yet to find a person that has spoken crossly about the CDC’s ongoing public information campaign, especially their work in social media. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be that guy; I’m not looking to knock the work that CDC has done. Truly, I think they’ve done a great job. I can only hope that if I ever have to do something similar, I meet with the same level of success.

The thing is, I don’t know what a poor job would look like. I’m a firm believer that success is defined by failure, and vice versa. I don’t know if CDC, or any other public health public information folks, are doing a good job or a bad job because I don’t know what that looks like.

There’s a cool post on a blog that I found through Twitter called Walking the Path: Smashing Silos and Encouraging Collaboration in Health Marketing Communications. One particular post stood out to me. In this post, the author thinks the CDC did a good job on educating people about H1N1 by utilizing social media, but is dropping the ball on spurring people to action. Specifically, lots of people aren’t planning on getting the vaccine, which anecdotally seems like the case to me, too.

Is that what failure looks like?

Is it possible that H1N1 public information campaigns are more than just education campaigns? Is there a second component to H1N1 communications, one of convincing people to act?

One of my good friends, Ike Pigott, blogging at Occam’s Razr, posted recently on something similar. He noted (in a really cool post about using Posterous to develop a streaming information hub–really, check it out) that people are more willing to act when something is relevant to them. He likens relevance to local-ness, and I think he’s on to something. This might be why CDC’s efforts at getting people to get the shot aren’t working. A campaign written for a nation won’t help to get Jane Q. Public to get her kids vaccinated. One of the commenters  on the Path blog above also noted that social media is a great way to do this, though difficult.

By providing local information that’s pertinent to the intended audience and providing a method for direct feedback and a way to ask questions, local health departments can work to spur people to take the next step.

I think that’s the next phase in H1N1 influenza communications (or at least it should be). Move away from bullhorn risk communications. Begin engaging with your community. Right now, the best way I can think of to do that is to use social media tools — at the local level.

CDC should be offering webinars on how LHDs can set up Twitter accounts and how to record YouTube videos. The CERC folks should be developing curriculums to teach PIOs how to write using a social media voice. Health Commissioners should be scheduling live chatroom “office hours” where citizens and residents can ask them to address specific worries from the public.

I guess, then, I’m not saying CDC has failed in their H1N1 communication efforts. They’ve handled the first phase extremely well. Kudos, really. I think that believing they can  continue to communicate the same way going forward, in this second phase, is their failure. And there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it. The fact is, the CDC is just not equipped to act as a local presence everything, nor should they be. Pandemic influenza is, and has always been, a local emergency that just happens to occur everywhere. The response, by definition, should be locally coordinated.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2009 7:13 am

    Jimmy, thanks for the props, but they aren’t all mine to accept.

    It was pure Social Media Happenstance that I had that Posterous Hub model at the top of my mind when Andrew Fowler reached out. As a dad with his kids entering school for the first time, it was the lack of actionable local information that drove his parental angst. And as you so accurately assert, more from a standpoint of questioning if efforts could be better (which doesn’t happen if no one rethinks the standard between success and failure.)

    The advantage I don’t think stressed enough is the ease of replication. Instead of training health department people in the “heat of battle” to use social media, just show the hub to a volunteer who sets up the accounts and links them. No need for LHD’s to spend valuable time expanding a skillset that is off the core.

    Moving forward, it must be in the core. There needs to be – baked into the model – a design to pipe questions and concerns back into the Posterous site. Why? Because every reply to a Posterous post returns to the author IN AN EMAIL. And replying to that email once again posts the reply to the site. Same function that has in the past been handled by a “phone bank,” but with a wider reach for those with common questions, open more hours, and searchable.

    As you so rightly point out, there’s always room for improvement.

    • October 20, 2009 10:22 pm

      As always, Ike, you’re right on.

      The Posterous idea seems ideal. My worry, though, is that it’s difficult enough to get government agencies to agree to services like Facebook and Twitter, even with the great metrics that are available on them. Asking them to build a blog, that’s controlled by email, that anyone can post publicly to? Consider me a skeptic.

      The only real solution you’ve already identified: going forward this has to become de riguer. People like you and organizations like the Red Cross and Salt Lake Valley Health Department have to show how successful embracing tools like Posterous can be.


      • October 21, 2009 6:39 am

        Just one clarification:

        Posterous rigidly controls who can post to an account.

        Only messages from approved addresses get published.

        That makes a huge difference for comfort in message security.

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