Thursday, August 27, 2009

Swine flu mistakes, again

Here we go again with swine flu controversy.

It wasn't too many months ago that health officials were being ridiculed for sounding an alarm over swine flu.

After the initial warning, the numbers trickled in. Based on what they viewed as a relatively low infection/death rate at that time, critics immediately blasted the swine flu warnings as bordering on yelling fire in a crowded theater. Comparisons were drawn to other deadly epidemics and ailments and, boy, it appeared to the naysayers that the swine flu was just a minor bug bite compared to the big boys of killer viruses.

Travelers were soon complaining about restrictions. Folks made fun of people wearing masks. I read many Tweets critical of the warning and for what many viewed as creating an unnecessary hysteria.

As the public relaxed and swine flu faded from the news, health organization reputations were taking a beating. Did they sound an alarm too early or too loud? Was a more measured warning appropriate at the time?

The reputation of these organizations and the credibility of the message were undermined. Depending on how deep the damage, the setback could hinder future educational efforts. If indeed a majority of the population felt that health officials were "crying wolf" earlier this year, would the public really listen to the next warning when swine flu was expected to make a comeback in the fall? For public relations professionals developing future swine flu outreach strategies for health organizations, the issue of public acceptance was likely a major focus this summer.

Fast forward to Monday, Aug. 24, when the White House issues alarming news about swine flu making a strong comeback. The warning: As many as 90,000 Americans could die from swine flu in the coming months. The virus could also infect half of the American population. Hospitals would be overwhelmed.

Wow. Talk about taking control of the message in a big way. Certainly, an announcement of this magnitude would make everyone forget the previous "cry wolf" episode. Scary estimates should stimulate the masses into taking precautions. Right?

The White House warning, which was preceded by a rash of stories about an expected jump in swine flu cases because schools were going back into session, was among this week's top stories (until Ted Kennedy died). Actually, the White House did a nice "warm-up" job in terms of communications - primarily through a couple of key press releases from the Department of Homeland Security. And, when you think about it, the World Health Organization began in June with renewed warnings.

With a few press releases "heating up" the conversation followed by the White House's incredibly dire prediction and a relatively slow news period, the swine flu story gained significant traction in recent days. News reports included medical experts giving advice on how washing your hands was critical to slowing down the spread. Tips were offered for employers.

Raise your hand if you know when vaccinations will be ready and how many doses you will need? (Answer: swine flu vaccines will be available in October. You will need two separate doses for the swine flu, along with a third for the regular flu).

What we had was a great educational effort. If you could design this as a public relations campaign, it's almost a perfect case study. A few key announcements to the public from mostly respected organizations, specific and direct warnings to key stakeholders, followed by a major announcement from a trusted source - the executive branch of the federal government.

But, whoa, hit the brakes. There is a new conflict, as pointed out today by a report that the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control disputes the Obama Administration's estimates. Dr. Frieden now believes the White House estimates are too high. Even officials within the White House are disputing the estimates.

Now what? What are we to believe? What are we supposed to do?

Based on reports from across the country, school administrators have been taking the White House and DHS warnings seriously. Policies are in place or being formulated to isolate children with symptoms and to call in parents to retrieve their sons and daughters. Teachers are reminding students about washing their hands.

Yet, now, with the CDC doubting the White House estimates, the situation can quickly turn into public anger. Depending on how much news coverage is given to the CDC director's opinion, the entire swine flu education campaign could unravel.

Does it get worse? Yes. Even the CDC, whose leader is publicly doubting death rates, is embarking on a major education effort -including using Facebook and Twitter - to get us inoculated against swine flu.

Hmmm. The threat is not as big as I once heard, but you want me to get vaccinated anyway?

Conflicting messages, again, could seriously ruin efforts to stop the spread of a very deadly virus. Could a public relations leader at one of these agencies take charge and offer a coordinated, singular public information campaign? Please?

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