Thursday, May 07, 2009

Spreading Like the Plague

In the same month, USA Today also covered the possible connection between containing outbreaks of disease (or at least the panics about them) and microblogging in an item on "Pandemics in the age of Twitter," which draws two morals from the story of how the CDC is using updates on social networks.

- The brash new world of social networking has changed the government's challenges during threatened pandemics. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and similar sites can be powerful connectors for the good, but they can also unleash weapons of mass misinformation. Public relations professionals say government and business communications plans carefully constructed during the avian flu threat in 2005-2006 were obsolete when this latest pandemic threat arrived.

"It is hard to believe, but three years made a world of difference in communications," said Bill Pendergast, a senior vice president at public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard.

During a Tuesday online webinar on pandemic communications, Pendergast added, "If the Obama presidential campaign was the first Web 2.0 campaign, this may be the first Web 2.0 global health issue."

- Second, even as faith in government's ability to get it right has been shaken (Hurricane Katrina, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) many still turn to government for dependable information. The CDC's performance so far is likely to boost confidence in the government's ability to handle pandemics, and its use of social networks has been a big part of its strategy.

However, the reporter also passes on concern about how the niche audiences and rapid-fire communication styles of Twitter can magnify misinformation about methods of transmission.

Health crisis communications expert Mark Senak said the CDC "exhibited a good deal of savvy in employing digital media during the crisis."

Senak, a senior vice president at Fleishman-Hillard who was a top communications consultant during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, praised the CDC's updates on Twitter, although he said the CDC could have posted more factual videos on YouTube.

Speaking during Fleishman-Hillard's webinar, Senak said he was "surprised not only by the level of misinformation" on Twitter, but was "astonished at the sheer volume of people who were talking about whether or not they should eat pork."

He said that made him realize that communicators must recalibrate from broadcasting to "nichecasting."

Intentionally or not, Senak described the pandemic-related challenges facing communicators as the same ones facing health care professionals. The social networks are a new and viral strain of an old condition, one with the ability to jump from one person's online network to another's with the click of a mouse, and to expand exponentially as it is transmitted.

"We are talking about segmented messages that go to a particular node that then pass it along," Senak said. "If there is one thing that has changed since 2006, it is the speed of information along these nodes."

I have been following the staccato rhythm of the Twitter feed for CDC Emergency for a while, which not only tracks the number of cases, states affected, and websites with advice for the current flu outbreak (with hashtags for both #swineflu and #h1n1) but also gives tips for other kinds of public health risks, such as tornadoes or carbon monoxide poisoning.

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