Communicating Zika: Lessons from H1N1

Photo Credit: James Gathany (CDC)

Photo Credit: James Gathany (CDC)

It's a moment I know is coming - the first confirmed case of Zika virus in a person who has not left the country. It will mean that Zika is here, in the United States, and that it is spreading. And it will be a communications firestorm.

In the spring of 2009, I was working as a public information specialist with the Salt Lake County Health Department in Salt Lake City, Utah. After a long weekend camping in the desert, I turned on my Blackberry to discover a frantic stream of emails and voicemails mobilizing the local response to a new strain of influenza, then known only as "swine flu."

Thus began the most frantic months of my life - weekends spent in joint information centers, my cell phone ringing off the hook, everyone hungry for an update on this new and threatening pandemic. 

For a young communications professional, it was trial by fire. And I learned a lot about public health emergencies and how to respond to both the news media and the general public. 

With Zika virus poised to spread into the United States, and the potential looming for more devastating consequences than previous modern pandemics, I've been reflecting on those lessons learned. 

Be prepared. In public health it is only a matter of time until the next pandemic emerges, and you have to be ready for it. When the emergency hits, it's vital to have your response procedures in place so you can hit the ground running.

Share what you know, and be honest about what you don't know. There is immense pressure for information when a crisis hits, and in those first moments details can be hard to come by. In these tense moments, it is crucial to stick to what you know. Rumors will run rampant and speculation will only add fuel to the fire.

Have a vetting process for new information and follow it every time. In the heat of a crisis, issuing a retraction or correcting inaccurate information is painful. And in our social world, it is next to impossible to erase wrong information. In our instantaneous, digital world, it's more important than ever to develop a trusted process to verify information.

Access your networks to spread the word - and be consistent. Everyone is thirsty for new information in a crisis, so share what you know as often as you can. During our H1N1 response, we instituted a daily update email for stakeholders outlining situation updates, key messages and other resources. Although the email was intended for a small audience, it became a lifeline for information that was spread far and wide, cropping up on websites, company intranets, office emails and more. 

Social media is a fantastic tool in an emergency. During the early days of H1N1, a company Facebook page was still a rarity. But when the emergency hit, people turned to our social media accounts in droves. Social media became a key avenue for posting time-sensitive updates, coordinating with reporters and fielding questions from the general public. Don't neglect social when the crisis hits. And be prepared for some heated comments. You can't control social media - all you can do is stay cool and be professional.

Remind people that we're all going through this experience together. I found that in the midst of the crisis, it was helpful to show the human face behind the public health response. Emphasizing our common humanity reminds people that we all have families we are worried about, and we all have a role to play in protecting our community.

If you can, give people something to do. Be clear about what people can do right now to stay informed and engaged, even if it is as simple as signing up for email alerts. Giving people a task in an emergency can calm tensions and restore a sense of control in a chaotic situation.

On a personal note, I hope Zika virus remains contained - in this country and beyond. As a mother to two young children, I am horrified by what Zika is doing to babies' development, and the lasting impact it will have on the lives of thousands. Let us hope the virus stays contained and has a smaller impact than predicted. 

But it is also wise to prepare. You can learn more about Zika virus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

Posted by: Kate Lilja Lohnes