CDC offers pandemic communication guidance

Jan 23, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – There's no standard playbook on communicating with the public during an influenza pandemic, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working to educate public health officials and businesses about how to tailor successful messages.

In a conference call for clinicians today, Barbara Reynolds, a CDC public affairs specialist and crisis communications expert, said that engaging the public during a pandemic will be a different problem than those encountered in any other type of crisis because communicators will be enlisting the public's help in reducing illness and death.

The three most important components to include in messages to the public or employees in the event of a pandemic are empathy, some type of action to take, and respect, she said.

Communicators need to show empathy within the first 30 seconds of a crisis message, she said. "If not, they won't hear your message because they're so overwrought with their emotions," said Reynolds, who traveled to several Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) district offices last year to train employees on pandemic crisis communications. She has also served as a risk communication consultant for several other countries and authored books on the topic.

During a pandemic, a public health communicator's job is to help people manage their emotions so that they can still function and not be "hopeless or helpless," Reynolds said.

She outlined several mistakes to avoid, such as:

  • Mixed or late messages. When it's critical to send a message quickly, "Don't worry about grammar or punctuation," she said.
  • Paternalism. "It's not reasonable to tell people to not be afraid. Address that they are afraid, then give them information that may help alleviate that fear," Reynolds said.
  • Ignoring rumors or myths. The longer rumors are allowed to circulate, the more likely they are to take hold.
  • Power struggles between government agencies, which erode pubic confidence in crisis response.

Communities and businesses should be planning their communications strategies now for scenarios such as the first H5N1 avian flu outbreak in poultry on US soil, she said.

Withholding information during a pandemic is risky, Reynolds said, because honesty and openness during a crisis help build the public's trust. "Consider what it means to withhold, and question why you're doing it, and if it's being done for reasonable reasons," she said, adding that news reporters are more likely to interpret events themselves when they have fewer facts and less background information.

From her experience in Hong Kong during the 1997 H5N1 outbreak in humans and from observing other health crises, Reynolds said she developed a concern about stigmatization of people, animals, and even products. Public health communicators should be careful not to unnecessarily or unconsciously link people or things to specific health threats.

During a question-and-answer session, a financial services communications employee asked Reynolds how to combat pandemic influenza "fatigue" in employees. "Don't expect everyone to have a high level of interest," she said, adding that companies should make sure their employees know where to get information about pandemic influenza. "Sometimes they have other concerns, such as who's on 'American Idol' or paying off credit cards after the holidays," she said.

Another audience member asked Reynolds about the role of blogs and other information sources during a pandemic. "One of the things we have to be humble about is we're competing to get information out. Credibility is more important than ever," she said.

Blogs and other social networking sites might be useful for helping people feel connected if social distancing measures are needed to reduce the spread of the disease, she said. Blogs and Web sites might also be useful for people mourning the loss of loved ones if funerals are prohibited or discouraged in the name of social distancing.

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