What the swine flu can teach us about crisis communication

Now that the swine flu seems to be more or less contained and on the retreat we can take a look at how institutions (especially the World Health Organization) dealt with this crisis and see if there is anything that we can learn from it.

The interesting part about this flu was that it introduced the WHO’s just recently updated pandemic alert phases to the general public. I think it was the use of this new communication vehicle that actually created more anxiety around the world than was necessary.

This new alert phases model the WHO introduced uses 6 + 2 phases illustrated below:


What is interesting is that the phases do not articulate the severity of a virus, they instead focus on the way the virus spreads — with phases 5 and 6 meaning widespread human infection, but not necessarily widespread human casualties, because that would depend on the severity of the virus.

Initial press reports usually combined stories about new deaths from the swine flu together with the WHO announcing a phase 5/6. The reason for the WHO announcement was to communicate to countries that as a pandemic, health services and other related government services needed to step up their game in ensuring containment.

But what happened was that by communicating this message to the general public, the message got mixed up, resulting in a scared public — mostly because it misunderstood the alert levels. The public thought that a move up in the alert phases meant an increase in the impact of the virus and that an increase in the impact would mean an increased chance to die from the flu. But that was not the case. As we now see the swine flu was much less deadly than most other flu viruses (while so far only one person died of the swine flu in the US, so far this year already 13,000 people died in the US of the general flu).

What could have been done differently? Instead of this one alert level, the WHO should have two alert scales — one for “internal use only” and one for the public. The internal use only should do exactly what the current one does; and that is make sure that contamination is being limited by warning relevant agencies about the level of transmission of the virus — how easy does it spread? The public one on the other hand should warn about how the virus spreads, how severe it is, what symptoms are typical. It shouldn’t create panic but instead educate the public.

What does this mean for information risk groups? Different audiences require different messages and different ways of communicating with them. There needs to be clear communication on how to respond to an incident for those who have to deal with the incident. Those who are directly impacted by an incident will have to know how to detect that an incident has occurred and be aware how to react to it. Those who are not directly impacted by an incident need to be kept informed about what is being done to remediate the situation.

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