Plan for the Worst to Communicate for the Best

Seasonal bugs. Contagious disease epidemics. Bioterrorism attacks. We can’t be certain when or how the next public health danger will occur, but we can be certain it is coming. And in our hyper-connected world, where information spreads as quickly as germs through tweets, posts, and soundbites, our individual and collective response will be influenced by a barrage of information.

But will it be helpful?

One needs only to look at the many falsehoods that have proliferated around epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola and H1N1 to see how quickly rumor and speculation spread. Injecting sound science and actionable advice into the public discourse in times of emergency is challenging at best. The tsunami of misinformation frequently leads politicians to enforce poor policies, citizens to take risky actions, and (ultimately) lives to be lost. If you have trouble imagining such a scenario, watch the 2011 all star cast science fiction thriller Contagion that really isn’t all that far-fetched.

At a recent convening hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, experts in public health and humanitarian responses to communities in crisis shared notes on lessons learned from efforts to contain contagious diseases and specifically how communications can better be deployed as a tool to save lives.

Given that modern communication channels are a tangled web of multi- dimensional connections, a crisis preparation and management strategy must also be rooted in a networked approach. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control commands impressive social media presence in response to evolving public health threats. But to flood the network with good information, we will need to enlist an army of lay communicators across multiple platforms that enjoy influence or “klout” in their circles.

Identifying these grassroots influencers isn’t necessarily the hard part. Finding those who are capable of doing so responsibly, and having a reliable way to arm them with unfolding information is more challenging. As the conference attendees noted, there are numerous locally-based networks that could and should be tapped to help. There are also interesting online models to explore.

Popular crowd sourcing platforms like Wikipedia, which is authored by a grassroots army and has mechanisms in place to ensure its maintenance as a high quality information resource, are one way to quickly but accurately spread information in a crisis. Increasingly popular personal health tracking devices that deliver real time information to our wrists or smartphone offer another route to directly engage with consumers with critical health information.

Creating a reliable network of layperson communicators also requires that we educate our society on some basic principles of good hygiene and sound science. Prevention-focused public education efforts targeting both young and old on the basics of evaluating and preventing health risks could minimize the spread of disease and panic in an epidemic scenario.

We also need to give the public tools to better filter sensational messages in an epidemic situation. Media literacy is not typically taught in our schools, but perhaps it should be.

Finally, we cannot hope for the best if we haven’t planned for the worst. Government agencies regularly engage in war gaming or tabletop scenarios. Let’s expand those activities to involve greater participation across multiple sectors of the economy with a strong representation from the communications industry, as well as the citizens who are natural influencers and purveyors of information.

Like many of the conference participants, I came away concerned about how communications in a public health crisis can quickly spiral out of control, but also optimistic about our role as communicators in containment. Ultimately, communications will be one of the most important weapons of defense in the next deadly disease outbreak. Let’s turn it into a weapon of offense by taking actions now to be prepared to effectively communicate with the public when the inevitable happens.

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