Managing Public Health Emergency Communications:
Insights from the inaugural Edelman Global Task Force on
Swine Influenza conference call
Edelman convened a conference call with our clients, public health experts, and
stakeholder engagement specialists on April 28 to share insights about the swine flu
situation. Here is an overview of the information participants’ shared about disease
prevention and the essential ingredients for a solid public health emergency
Update From Mexico
Zerene Kahan, Regional Director of Edelman’s Latin American Health
Practice, reports from Mexico.
News of swine flu began on Friday, April 24 in Mexico.
As of April 28, there had been 2,000 swine flu cases and 150 flu-related
deaths in Mexico.
There is disagreement among local and federal officials about how to
“message” what’s going on.
All Mexican schools and restaurants are closed until May 6.
Supermarkets are open, and people are buying supplies “like it’s a war.”
There’s panic among the general population.
What’s Really Going On? A Public Health Perspective
Dr. Julie Gerberding, former Director of the CDC, now of counsel to
Edelman, puts the situation in context.
It’s important to understand what we know and what we don’t know at this
point. We don’t have enough information to be able to predict how this will
We know this is a new virus that can affect pigs and humans. It’s contagious
Here’s what we DON’T KNOW:
1. Overall population level of susceptibility. Some people may be partially
protected because of recent flu shots, but there’s no reason to believe there’s
is total immunity.
2. Seriousness of the disease. There have been documented deaths from
swine flu. We are seeing everything from mild symptoms to severe flu
symptoms, such as upper respiratory problems.
3. How far it’s spreading. We’ve seen some clusters in the U.S. and Mexico
caused by close personal contact. There’s no way of knowing how fast it will
spread through the general population. Seasonal weather may impact the
spread, slowing it down in warm weather, only to see it reappear in the fall.
It’s an unfolding situation.
Organizations and people must concentrate on:
1. Protecting the lives and health of people we’re responsible for. Follow
CDC or State Department travel guidelines. Provide warnings of what
symptoms to look for and when to take action. Don’t recommend that people
immediately go to a doctor or hospital – it clogs the system and takes away
from people with serious illness. Advise employees to call their doctors first
to describe their symptoms, and heed their doctors’ advice.
Containing a new flu virus is difficult for governments. We should not be
overly concerned about what may appear to be lax policies about people
returning to the U.S. from Mexico in particular. It’s possible to be a flu virus
carrier and be asymptomatic, so it’s nearly impossible to catch every case.
Don’t assume that there are “safe places” to travel, such as Cancun and
other areas where there is high tourist traffic. People should be alert at all
2. Keeping society and business functional. Essential business functions
must stay up and running to prevent wide-spread panic. Keep the continuity
in society (banks open, drugs available, etc.)
It’s very important not to “stigmatize” Mexican people or businesses, such as
Mexican restaurants. We’re all in this together.
If you have employees who, by necessity, travel in and out of Mexico, ask
them to take precautions, be considerate of colleagues, and follow CDC
Reliable communications is critical:
People need to know you’re protecting them. Let employees know
you’re following the situation and what you are doing about it. Consider
those who may need to work from home, perhaps to care for a parent or sick
Communications must be accessible. Never underestimate the
importance of regular communications with employees. People need to
connect with one another. If employees work from home, understand the
isolation this creates and encourage dialogue through social networks.
What Organizations Can Do To Communicate Effectively in Uncertain Times
Mike Seymour from Edelman’s Global Crisis Practice in the U.K. offers
insight to help companies cut through confusion.
Three things to consider now:
1. The uncertainty of the situation can easily and quickly cause panic.
2. Communications with your people is essential.
3. Now is the time to consider key policy decisions (and communicate them).
1. Uncertain environment
It’s easy for concern to turn to fear, which turns to panic. Help avoid this
through frequent, concise, compelling communications.
Our job as managers is to control potential risk – think forward about the
possible escalation of the situation.
Communicate how the situation changes business (or doesn’t).
Make sure you have the ability, such as IT capacity, to handle letting people
work at home, should you need to let them do that.
Be sensitive to people who request to work at home. Don’t minimize their
2. Managing Information
Strike a balance between providing more information and actually running
the risk of creating fear
Explain in simple terms what the symptoms are and how to watch for
Let people know about hygiene practices that will help minimize the
Create a dialogue. Use social networks, develop key messages and express
what your expected behaviors are.
Solicit feedback. Know what communications tactics are working and
Stay on top of the media. People’s opinions are being shaped by the
media. Be sure you stay on top of the media and share what you learn in a
concise and clear way.
Have credible sources ready to point people to for accurate information
(e.g. WHO, CDC, Red Cross, etc.)
Communicate daily status. Be clear and concise. Let people know what
you know. Consider a daily bulletin at a specific time so you become a
resource for your people. If there’s nothing new to add, say that.
3. Policy decisions
Consider how your customer relationships may change:
o Will you continue to hold meetings in person?
o Do you expect people to travel as they normally do?
o What constraints are you putting on travel and how are you
o Are you providing alternative ways to travel?
Have work-at-home policies in place. Clearly define expectations and
You’ll find that as concern grows, so does absenteeism, usually in cycles.
Prepare for this.
What’s your family policy? If schools close, can your employees work from
What advice will you offer people about what to do if they feel symptomatic?
What’s Next: How We’re Monitoring the Situation
Steve Behm – Global Task Force Contact – Atlanta
80% of those on the call indicated they have a “very significant concern” or
“significant concern” about the swine flu outbreak and its impact on their business.
To help manage these concerns:
Edelman will provide real-time information on our Health Engagement Blog at
Will monitor news media around the world and provide a real-time snapshot
of coverage through Twitter at http://twitter.com/healthcrisis
Set up e-mail addresses to handle regional or crisis issues promptly: