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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

The ‘No-Win’ Public/Media Communications Challenge For Officials On Possible Fall H1N1 Flu Outbreak

July 26th, 2009 · No Comments

I read a very smart and helpful post, “Hubris And The Flu” this morning from the blog Avian Flu Diary about the challenge for government in communicating with the public and the media on H1N1.

The piece does a very nice job of illustrating the almost ‘no-win’ communications dilemma governmental entities have on H1N1 (and potential emergencies in general): officials want to warn people and get them to prepare, but will be criticized for ’scaring’ Americans if the end result turns out not to be as serious as the warnings (even if some of the upfront preparations contributed to the better outcome!).

It’s a good news/bad news scenario that is part of the emergency business. However, I think it is valuable to highlight that communications predicament in advance for the public and the media (and for the latter to integrate it into their coverage). This post lays out the dilemma as well as I’ve seen, and I recommend it. I’ve excerpted a good portion:

“There are obviously a lot of people who believe that some of us are making too much of this pandemic. You see editorialists, pundits, and commenters to websites opining that public health officials are scaremongering, that the media is sensationalizing, and that `swine flu’ is mild and nothing to worry about. I’ll grant that in some cases, particularly in the tabloid press, the media is sensationalizing this flu.

As to the other points . . .Public health officials don’t have the luxury of assuming that this flu will be a `non-event’. Not only do their jobs hinge on being prepared to deal with a pandemic, so do the lives of a great many people. Editorialists and commenters that blithely disparage those preparations do so because they risk absolutely nothing by being wrong. It is not their posterior on the line. There is no penalty if they convince the public that there is no danger, and it turns out there really is.

Imagine the Senate and House subcommittee hearings that would ensue if public health officials ignored this pandemic threat, failed to prepare, and even a small number of people died. The media would have a field day with live coverage, heads would roll in every state and federal agency, and the political, social, and economic fallout could be incredible. That’s the price of underestimating the threat…

…The way I’ve got it figured, if you are an emergency planner, or work in public health, there is absolutely no way to come out of this pandemic without being roundly criticized. There are basically 3 ways this pandemic could turn out.

1. The pandemic is mild. Very few people die. Disruptions to society are minor. This is the best case scenario, and one that just about everyone is hoping for. Of course, if that happens, public health officials will take in on the chin for `for scaring us all to death’ and spending billions of taxpayer dollars over `nothing’.

2. The pandemic is moderate or even severe. But through the hard work and dedication of millions of healthcare workers, emergency planners, and first-responders we are able to largely mitigate the damage, and greatly lower the death toll. Since society did not collapse, once again critics will claim that public health overstated the threat, and overreacted. Ironically, the better job they do, the more likely that Public Health Officials will be castigated for their trouble.

3. The Pandemic is moderate or even severe. There are excess deaths, society or the economy is disrupted, and public health mitigation, or the vaccine, is perceived by the public and the media as having been less than `ideal’. Which is a pretty good bet during a severe crisis.

There is plenty of room for things to go wrong, no matter how hard people work to prevent it. Once again, the blame will fall squarely on public health officials. But of course this time, they will be blamed for under-reacting, under-preparing, or incompetence. If this sounds like a no-win situation, you’d be right. Public health officials will likely get the same level of public appreciation that millions of computer programmers got in the year 2000 after working like dogs for several years to prevent a (very real) Y2K disaster.

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Tags: Media · Pandemic Flu

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