On April 26, US health officials declared a swine flu outbreak, also known as the H1N1 virus, as a public health emergency. Within three days, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the influenza pandemic alert level to phase 5 as more and more cases were reported across the world.
Dave Daigle, deputy director of media relations for the CDC, says Richard Besser, the agency's acting director, wanted “to be very aggressive and meet every media need.”
By communicating with the press daily through briefings and using social media outlets to refer the public back to a CDC microsite, the agency has controlled much of the messaging around the outbreak and thus lessened the fear of a pandemic among the public.
“I think there's a notable lack of panic among the American public,” says Karen Doyne, MD of the issues and crisis group at Burson-Marsteller. “It reflects the pretty effective job the CDC has done so far in informing the public and, just as importantly, in setting expectations.”
The referral strategy has been key in driving traffic to the microsite, which received up to 7 million hits a day, to provide information about prevention, drugs and treatment, and cases, according to Daigle.
“My position is that I hope we overreact and that this thing goes away quickly,” he says. “But at CDC, we have to be very concerned. We've always acted aggressively, planning that this could be a potential pandemic.”
Steve Behm, SVP of crisis, issues, and public affairs at Edelman, notes that there are three tactics that are important to recognize during a crisis like the swine flu outbreak.
“It's critical to ensure facts, not hype, are leading the conversation; to facilitate communications to central points, so you're not jamming mediums with competing counsel or content; and, of course, offering reliable information on a consistent basis,” he says.
The CDC also set up an on-site information center for journalists and allowed selected media outlets to tour the emergency operations center and look in on the labs, beginning April 30. Daigle says that although he did not work for the CDC during the anthrax scare, he has heard that this response is much better.
“[The CDC] acknowledged themselves that they erred on the side of overcommunication and that's exactly the right thing to do,” adds Doyne.