Flu Epidemic Highlights Messaging Mojo of CDC

Flu season is upon us, and in a big way. Today the story broke that flu-related deaths have now reached the “epidemic” level. With two small kids, that’s a worry to me.

Then I began reading what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to say on their regular morning conference call to reporters, and I began to feel a bit better.

Why? In talking to CDC communicators for stories in PR News, their high level of messaging expertise really shines. What distinguishes the CDC’s PR know-how from the rest? CDC officials are ready to counter bad news with at least some glimmer of positive. Here’s a few examples from this morning’s press conference:

The Bad News: Flu-related deaths have reach epidemic proportions.
The Counter: There are early signs that flu cases have peaked in certain parts of the country, as the number of doctor’s visits have dropped.

The Bad News: The flu shots that the CDC urged Americans to get are not infallible–this year’s vaccine has been rated 62% effective, which is “moderately” effective.
The Counter: A quote from CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, who said while the vaccine “is far from perfect, it’s by far the best tool we have to prevent influenza.”

You get the picture. CDC briefings are often full of bad news, but communicators are able to pepper it with some good news as well, and all of it is backed by research and expertise that the public trusts. While a worried public may not like what the CDC has to say, it’s how it’s said that should resonate with PR pros.

Earlier this year I spoke with Llelwyn Grant of the news media branch at the CDC, and Lola Russell, CDC’s senior press officer, about communications around the West Nile virus outbreak. They offered up five crisis PR lessons for our readers, which I’ll paraphrase here:

1: Preparation is the key to ensuring that messages are coordinated across all stakeholders
2: Explain the situation in plain language, not “science-speak”
3: Use the level of media interest to gauge media strategy and tactics. The higher the level, the more outreach
4: Be aware of message frequency, particularly in fast-evolving stories
5: Offer solutions. In the CDCs case, it’s what the audience can do to protect themselves

Certainly not all these lessons pertain to every crisis, but I think it’s enlightening to study the CDC’s messaging. At the very least, it will make for healthier communications.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01