The still-active-story on the swine (oops, the H1N1 Virus) flu is creating much debate and discussion about a vital part of the public relations process - how to effectively communicate with the general public.
Scientists, especially those at the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization, are concerned that the significant attention (some argue it was needless "hype") given to the initial outbreak may have actually created a "cry wolf" scenario that will make it even more difficult to convey warnings and information when the flu is expected to make a strong comeback in the fall. (See today's Wall Street Journal about what we may be facing).
And if indeed we now have a general population who won't heed warnings and messages in a few months because they felt over-sold at the initial outbreak, how will public relations strategies be crafted to ensure an effective information campaign when it's really needed?
Let's start looking at this from the beginning.
It appears the public relations situation we now face is rooted in two phenomenons:
1. The "Body Count" and comparisons. The public is keeping track of how many have been "stricken" and how many have died. A low number of deaths (95 so far worldwide, 11 in the U.S.), seems to tell us that this flu is not all that bad - especially when you look at what other diseases are doing! (A few of my colleagues like to make these comparisons, and others like to make jokes about people wearing masks). We PR types sometime compete against one another, especially when it comes to health issues. For instance, it's difficult to conduct a swine flu informational campaign when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation receives a lot of worldwide public attention (rightfully so) for spending millions to prevent the nearly 900,000 annual deaths from malaria.
2. Speed of news and attention spans. Our concern for issues is now resembling the memory capacity of a goldfish. As we get news faster (from Twitter, especially), our capacity to maintain a focus on any story is diminished. If we begin to talk to a friend about a story that happened last week, we immediately get dismissed for bringing up something that is "old news." (My favorite line among my Twitter-savvy friends is "Yeah, I read this yesterday" as if I was being told to "move on" to a new topic.)
Did we over-react to the swine flu warning?
If you listen to various pundits or even some of my colleagues, their conclusion is: Yes.
If you can get some scientists to talk publicly about it, they would say: thank God we did over-react.
What some scientists and public health officials privately say is that their "heightened" attention and the level of concern publicly displayed at the start of the outbreak actually did its job. Because so many people took precautions and countries, like Mexico, took drastic measures - the flu was effectively contained. The low numbers of infection and death are the result of people actually taking steps - because they were warned to do so.
So now, these scientists and health officials say, they are being penalized for a job well done. The current discussion should be turned around from one of unnecessary hype to job well done and let's remain vigilant.
For my colleagues who are using Twitter for their marketing and product campaigns, take a look at the ongoing study by two Stanford researchers who are tracking Twitter responses to the flu. So far, this study provides a fascinating peak into what may be a momunental shift in public perceptions and behaviors.
Also, keep track of online surveys, such as the one Treehugger.com is conducting, begging the question: Are you afraid of the flu? (Spoiler alert: Most responses say "No" because they feel it's an over-reaction.)
Finally, to my PR colleagues who will be involved in developing and implementing flu-related information campaigns later this year, I envy the lead time you have to develop an effective strategy. It will be educational to watch the fall informational campaign and how you overcome the obstacles I mention here.