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?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Confusing Town Halls and Health Care Attacks

A favorite Warren Zevon song is "Lawyers, Guns and Money." Motivation and means to get what you want, or the tools to wage battle.

In the case of our current health care debate, all we need to do is simply replace "Guns" with "Words."

Unless you've been on vacation in another country with your Blackberry turned off, the big news these past few days has been the disruptions at town hall meetings to discuss health care reform and an almost hourly claim-counterclaim avalanche of stories about the bill before Congress.

Accusations are flying. Fingers are being pointed. Police are being called in to help escort members of Congress out of nasty town hall meetings. Aides and staffers are staying up late to counter statements and brief reporters on background.

It's a classic disinformation campaign, for those who have followed national politics the past century.

Yes, Americans could do their own digging and get the facts about the proposed legislation. And, they could also see whose goose could be cooked. Or, you can let others do that.

For instance, reporters and special interests are digging, eventually discovering what appears to be some old-school dirty politics. Check out how the Sierra Club is battling this and turning up some interesting information. Fascinating that an environmental group could find their niche in this one.

This incredible trail of information (or misinformation) campaigns is helping (hurting?) the quest to bring this issue to the forefront of our collective consciousness. BBQ and cocktail party discussions include personal stories that point out what's wrong with our nation's health care system. Some of us are even watching "Sicko" again just to see just how England's National Health Service really pulls it off.

So, what does this tell us?

Simply - this health care initiative must be really, really important. And it's time to pay attention. It's time to understand there are major disinformation efforts under way to deliberately confuse us.


Never in this century has a president come this far to a major overhaul of the nation's health care system.

It's not like we didn't know this battle was coming. This was a priority for Obama during the campaign, and the essence of his pledge to Sen. Ted Kennedy that earned him Kennedy's endorsement.

If anything, this is a battle for mindshare. And, communications are at the heart of this battle.

So far, the tactics and strategies cover the gambit.

On the opponent's side, there are these examples: Disrupt town hall meetings with either "plants" or with citizens who have been fed scary, but wrong, information. Overwhelm the news media with claims and "facts" to the point that proponents are forced to respond, thereby causing the news media to cover the battles rather than provide us clear, unbiased information about the bill's contents.

Or, feed the media with juicy tidbits about who is behind the campaigns and, again, it draws attention and time away from discussing the merits and fine points of the bill.

The White House has been aggressive, particularly on the social media and Internet fronts. The Reality Check Web site is too hard to resist (Nice to see former Los Angeles television reporter Linda Douglass in one of these clips). Yet, some want the White House to fight harder and, perhaps, dirtier.

Frankly, these strategies are nothing new. Just the execution, the channels and the frequency are different.

So, where will this go? Will we see a new communications strategy?

My instincts tell me: No. The old tactics still seem to work. At least, for the opposition.

Even as the best communications and political strategists on both sides are, right now, plotting the next move (in what seems to be an almost hourly process), it seems we will continue to see a strategy of: Punch, then counter-punch. Claim, then counter-claim. Fact, then the real facts.

Why no new thinking? The fundamentals -- money and fear -- are still present and too easy to resist.

And, so, money and fear will drive the rest of this debate.

Can opponents create enough confusion, fear and anger among the populace to start a small revolt or significant letter-writing effort to further stall the reform bill or generate enough compromises that this is no longer a "reform" initiative? Will special interests opposed to the bill calculate that being exposed - eventually - about their large cash outlays to front groups and questionable tactics is worth the risk? Is there enough cash among proponents to wage an advertising campaign once the August recess is over?

Lawyers, Words and Money. I'm sure Warren would approve.