Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Guest post: “This must have been a communications problem”

Written by Manitoba communicator Greg Burch

I think every professional communicator has been on the receiving end of this kind of feedback at one time or another. If you have not, let me assure you it is just a matter of time. It comes with the territory. When I saw this article, I felt strongly for the poor communications folks at public health agencies across Canada who must have put in a major communications effort in support of the public vaccination campaign to combat the H1N1 influenza virus. Melanie was gracious enough to allow me to share these thoughts with the readers of her outstanding blog. So here we go…

The article implies that the H1N1 vaccination campaign was a “bust”. Based on the statistics cited, the resources expended and the outcome achieved, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion. In the list of the three key failings of the H1NI campaign, the communicators get top billing for failing to communicate that the vaccine was safe. Ahead of inter-governmental dysfunction, no less. In Canada, that’s saying something. Ouch.

Don’t get me wrong, like any other profession, PR practitioners can make mistakes. We’re human, after all. There were several policy errors that contributed to the challenges faced by the vaccination campaign too. Inconsistent policies lead to inconsistent messaging, and in any situation this will cause confusion. The article definitely touches on this.

But even without these problems, the H1N1 project would have been in trouble before it even got off the ground. In fact, I am surprised people thought it would do any better than it did. You can debate whether the $2 billion for H1N1 mass immunization plan was worth it in hindsight (personally, I think it was), but given the context this project was launched in, it was a miracle the vaccination rates got to the level they did. I know there are those who question the safety of adjuvants for whatever reason, but this was hardly the key factor.

Why do I say this? To succeed, a communications plan must start with the facts as they are, not as people wish they are. Anything else breeds confusion and a major gap in credibility. It seems obvious. When it comes to H1N1, it was missed in a big way.

The context established by officials of the World Health Organization early on in the pandemic created a serious credibility gap and no PR professional was going to bridge it. WHO officials were making statements, speculating and taking policy steps that simply were out of touch with the experience of people. Did people get sick? Yes. Did people die? Yes, and it is very sad. One simply has to look to isolated communities in Northern Manitoba to see the impact the H1N1 strain had on some communities.

I would never want to minimize the loss or impact on anyone who was affected. But the fact is that influenza does take lives every year, quite a number in fact. H1N1 never got to the point in the public imagination where it appeared any worse than regular, seasonal influenza. This is a testament to the hard work of many, many health care professionals. But it is also very clear that H1N1 was not avian flu, and certainly nothing like the Spanish Flu.

WHO officials, with their speculation, ominous announcements and invocations of “level 6” and other emergency-ese were wholly out-of-step with the general public perception. The liberal invocation of worst-case scenarios by the WHO (this article has a nice summary of some of them) caused fear of the worst. But the worst never came, spawning opinion pieces like this one. What a surprise that vaccination rates did not hit expectations. Throw in the other challenges experienced by the clinics, doubts in the populace about vaccine safety, and the sheer inconvenience of the lineups, and of course rates were low.

The credibility gap around H1N1 issue was very significant from the outset. Doubts filled the vacuum. To discount this, and feel instead that the safety of the vaccine was not communicated is seriously flawed conclusion in my opinion. You cannot communicate effectively without credibility. You have to be grounded in reality. Even now, the WHO continues to employ their unduly threatening, still-a-pandemic approach in interviews, prolonging and enlarging the credibility gap they have established. The safest adjuvant in the world will not overcome this.

So to the PR professionals of Canada’s health field: keep your chin up! You frankly did a great job given the circumstances. I hope national and international decision makers will find a way to look in the mirror as well as looking at the messenger, and draw lessons that will serve us better in the event these policies and plans are needed again in the future.

Greg Burch is Director, Corporate and Employee Communications at MTS Allstream in Winnipeg. He can be reached at greg.burch@mtsm.blackberry.com.

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