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The Risk Communicator

March 22, 2010

In the past, I’ve written about The Risk Communicator, a newsletter out of the Emergency Risk Communications Branch in the Office of Public Health Preparedness & Response down at CDC. It’s a shame this document is published so infrequently because it combines two of my favorite things (oreos and milk) public health preparedness and risk communications.

In that light, I’ve decided to focus on this latest issue for two reasons. First, to show off the great work that went into this version to you all; and second, to cajole the good folks down in the ERC branch to publish this more regularly.

Before we get started, a PDF of the third issue can be found here.

The first section is entitled, “emergency and risk communication on the web,” and details how CDC blends Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) principles with web publishing, using emergency.CDC.gov website as a case study. Their recommendations include:

  • Blend Emergency Risk Communication Principles with Web Usability Principles
  • Seek Out and Embrace Opportunities to Educate the Public
  • Aim Your Web Channels at Your Audiences

Seems simple, but when responding to emergencies, we’re usually so overwhelmed by the situation, we forget what we do every day.

The second section is a summary of the published article, The Anthrax Scare and the Web: a Content Analysis of Web Pages Linking to Resources on Anthrax by Judit Bar-Ilan and Ana Echerman of Bar-Ilan University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. While I disagree with the use of “scare” in the title, the content and methods used are really very interesting. They developed “a method for characterizing the page and linking patterns related to dramatic events on the Web,” and found that the internet—even then—was starting to be seen as a source information about emergencies. In fact, anthrax was the top search term on Google for the entire month of October 2001.  As a content producer, the most interesting aspect was this:

The results of this study indicate that the anthrax attacks increased the number of anthrax-related searches and news coverage, but it did not have a statistically significant impact on the amount of factual information available on the Web. The study found that “content producers often preferred to compose lists of links to resources on anthrax rather than produce their own original content.” Content producers also tended to link to U.S. government resources more than they linked to other pages.

I would love to see how the authors would approach today’s social media tools and how they facilitate deep-linking and information dissemination.

Next up is an interesting little piece about how a rural health department plans to collect information about the status of the public during a large-scale public health emergency, like an influenza pandemic. EMS personnel recommended the distribution of color-coded door hangers be distributed to all households in the county. As the health status of that house changed, different colored door hangers would be placed on the front doorknob to alert authorities who would be tasked with driving around the county daily. Residents would hang green or white hangers to indicate everything was okay (green on even days, white on odd days). Red and yellow would indicate needs and black would identify that someone had died.

Besides the obvious ease of burden on 911 calls, what a great way to pull the public into planning and response.

The final section is about how the Sacramento County Public Health Division have integrated YouTube videos into their public information campaigns. After an initial investment of about $2,000, they’ve got the ability to actually speak to the public. They’ve demonstrated that they can get a video up in only a few hours. Use of video websites, like YouTube, by public health departments is something I’ve advocated for for years. Every communicator out there knows that so much of what we say is conveyed through visual cues, yet we persist in releasing text-based websites and press releases. Comparing the same copy, once as black and white text, and also presented as video of a health official talking (complete with an emotive face, posture and hand movement); it just makes sense that the video presentation would result in higher levels of understanding and empathy by the public. This is especially true during an emergency situation when the number one message is that there is no reason to panic (ugh, I said it, but worry doesn’t really fit here).

So there’s my pitch. What do you think? Is this kind of thing useful? Would you sign up to receive this very slick newsletter? (Or like to see it set up as a more regularly updated blog-like thing?) Leave me comments below or reach out to your friends at CDC about making it happen.

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