Tuesday, May 12, 2009, 1:36 PM

Swine flu highlights perils and promise of social media

This column was originally published in The Daily Record on Friday, May 8, 2009

(The CDC's Youtube Channel)

The H1N1 virus – also known as “swine flu” – isn’t going away just yet, but there a few early lessons we can glean from this case about how to communicate effectively in a public crisis.

For me, the H1N1 outbreak illuminates both the perils and promise of social media and how it can shape public perception.

First, the perils. As the H1N1 flu picked up momentum in late April, popular social media sites lit up with commentary from the public. Many users of the social media site Twitter warned the broader public to avoid eating pork products so as not become “infected” with the flu.

There is one problem with this advice: it’s wrong. The H1N1 flu is not transmitted via food, but the presence of such inaccurate information in the public dialogue posed a threat to the bottom line of pork producers across the world.

Yet U.S. pork producers had just 300 followers on Twitter – a miniscule audience considering the global scrutiny and volume of chatter about their product. As a result, a critical opportunity to contain damaging speculation was missed.

Twitter is no echo chamber. The micro-blogging site has 5 million members globally, each of whom is capable of delivering information to wide audiences. With some Twitter members boasting networks of one million followers, misinformation about pork products can spread like, well, a virus.

Sure enough, prices of hog futures contracts dropped sharply as the flu’s reach spread. I won’t attribute the price drop solely to the misinformation on sites like Twitter, but it is hard to ignore the impact on the pork industry’s product as false information spread to wider audiences.

The lesson is that organizations cannot ignore social media communities in a crisis. Any citizen with a Twitter account or a video camera can spread any content about your industry or product that he or she desires, whether it’s pork or Pepsi. And whether your organization considers that citizen credible is irrelevant; what matters is whether that citizen’s network of followers considers them to be credible. To put it in public health terms, organizations fighting through a crisis must quarantine bad information and kill it. Then, replace it with the facts.

So, what is the upside of social media in a crisis? The Centers for Disease Control has demonstrated during H1N1 outbreak that organizations under the gun can use social media to their advantage. The CDC added roughly 10,000 new followers on Twitter every day during the crisis, bringing its total followers to more than 105,000 at the time of this writing. It has distributed hundreds of messages online about the flu, its origins, and what precautions the public should take. Cable news outlets such as CNN monitored the CDC’s online efforts and repeated the agency’s message to their massive viewing audience. The CDC also posted informational videos on Youtube, some of which garnered more than 140,000 views per week.

Beyond social media, the CDC’s strategy shows three hallmarks of a good crisis communications strategy.

Over-communication. One would have to be living under a rock to have not seen or heard from the CDC over the past two weeks. The agency utilized virtually every communications tool at its disposal – both old and new - to inform the public. The CDC hasn’t fallen prey to the dangerous assumption that your audience “gets it” in a crisis after you’ve issued a couple press releases and updated your website. To the contrary, they spare no opportunity to reassure the public, often on a minute-to-minute basis.

Message discipline. Acting CDC Director Richard Besser has positioned himself as a calm and articulate spokesman for the government. More importantly, he has repeated his message of prudence and informed decision-making relentlessly.

Crisis planning. The CDC has prepared for years to communicate effectively in the event of an outbreak. Granted, it’s the CDC’s job to do so, but too few companies today can say they have developed a plan to communicate with their stakeholders in the event of a crisis.

The closing chapters of the H1N1 crisis have yet to be written, but one lesson for Maryland organizations is clear: public conversations are migrating to online communities that hold great promise and great peril. The real question is whether your organization will follow.

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