It was mid-60s in NE Ohio at 5 a.m. when I hit the concrete for my daily five-miler. And I was thinking again this morning how quickly our national attention shifts from story to story, event to event. Remember a few weeks ago when we were heading to the hardware stores in search of pitchforks, the better to prod the Wizards of Wall Street into some thoughtful (ethical?) action. Now we’re in the queue at pharmacies stocking up on surgical masks and Therma Flu.
So consider this. Obama was in Mexico a few weeks ago, and I don’t recall reading or hearing anything then about swine flu? Maybe there is just too much information these days. Can’t keep track of it all. Or is it possible that no elected or public health official in Mexico knew about this during Obama’s visit? Or didn’t they want to take the edge off the visit with this less-than-favorable news? Or was the national news media that accompanies the Prez too busy tweeting about Oprah?
Even given that Mexico is third-world country in the midst of a drug war you would figure that an outbreak of swine flu would be, ah, news. Particularly if someone is coughing in the direction of the Prez. So right off the bat credibility is an issue for me here. Who knew what — and when? I haven’t heard good or even plausable answers to that yet. And maybe we won’t since this story is gaining visibility and Big Mo. I was watching CNN last night and fully expected Wolf Blitzer to cut away to Lou Dobbs rolling around in mud and oinking. I digress.
But here’s the rub — and it is a tough one from the standpoint of communication. How do you effectively communicate the nature and extent of risk? I really believe this is one of the most difficult challenges for communication professionals — and in this case elected and public health officials. You don’t want to raise public concerns to the point of panic. Yet you have to prepare the public for what could be a serious — potentially deadly — situation. And nobody these days wants his or her resume to include: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
And the dilemma in managing risk communication played itself out on the front page of the Akron Beacon Journal this morning (deadtree edition). Two stories:
Headline No. 1: “Global group raises swine flue alert level”
Key points: Epidemic entering extremely dangerous phase. Number of infected mushrooming. “At this time containment is not a feasible option.” Ugh. OK.
Headline No. 2: “Local health officials monitor virus, urge public to stay calm”
Key points: Be prepared but not panicked. Ugh. OK.
Again, tough communication challenge here — and as with most matters, it helps to start with some credibility. Then, here are some guidelines as prepared by the U.S. Public Health Service a decade ago:
Figure 1. Principles of Risk Communication
There are seven cardinal rules for the practice of risk communication, as first expressed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several of the field’s founders:
- Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner.
- Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts.
- Listen to the public’s specific concerns.
- Be honest, frank, and open.
- Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources.
- Meet the needs of the media.
- Speak clearly and with compassion.
Source: Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication. Pamphlet drafted by Vincent T. Covello and Frederick H. Allen. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, April 1988, OPA-87-020.
And by the way, I think I’m still sick from the swine flu shot I got in the mid-70s.