FOURTH UPDATE (6:00 pm eastern): The tone of US based media seems to be shifting to reflect today’s White House briefing, if the following represent a trend:
A new CNN story is headlined, Take standard flu season precautions to avoid infection.
The risk communications challenge may now be greatest in terms of new media and social networks and how the Swine Flu threat is communicated outside the US. For example, see a story from one London tabloid, the headline is “Swine Flu ‘could kill up to 120 million.” In combination with the Internet’s own viral capabilities, a few stories like this one can have a significant echo. MONDAY MORNING MENTION: Further to the global risk communications challenge, this morning’s Wall Street Journal leads with, “European stocks fall on fears over swine flu.”
THIRD UPDATE: (3:47 eastern): In a great example of risk communications good practice, the DHS press office just released a complete transcript of the mid-day Sunday White House press briefing. This reinforces the briefing’s messages and helps ensure that the details of the briefing will be used in the Sunday night/Monday morning news cycle. The transcript is available at http://www.dhs.gov/ynews/releases/pr_1240773850207.shtm This will also give all of us in the blogosphere the opportunity to nit-pick individual answers, but the likely pay-off is well worth that hassle factor. (Also read transcript of 3:00 pm CDC teleconference.)
SECOND UPDATE (3:00 pm eastern): The White House briefing’s predictable headline was “US declares public health emergency.” What could not be predicted 90 minutes ago is how the media would frame the story. It is still too soon to reach that judgment, but following is an Associated Press summary (in its entirety):
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. declared a public health emergency Sunday to deal with the emerging new swine flu, much like the government does to prepare for approaching hurricanes. Officials reported 20 U.S. cases of swine flu in five states so far, with the latest in Ohio and New York. Unlike in Mexico where the same strain appears to be killing dozens of people, cases in the United State have been mild — and U.S. health authorities can’t yet explain why.
Fair enough and suggests the briefers — and on this headline, especially Secretary Napolitano — were effective in putting a “public health emergency” in its appropriate context. Further, it demonstrates the AP reporter, at least, was listening for context.
UPDATE (12:25 pm eastern): White House briefing on Swine Flu is scheduled for 12:30. Can be seen streaming at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/live/
After-Briefing Comment(1:21 pm eastern): The quartet of briefers came off as competent and credible. They projected confidence. They communicated, at least to me, that reasonable — even aggressive — measures are being taken to mitigate the currently modest threat from morphing into something more. Yet they were also clear regarding the unpredictable nature of viral mutations. Perhaps as important, they set-out a framework for regular updates and communication that should discourage undue speculation and rumor-mongering. The full impact of today’s intervention probably depends on:
1. How well others follow-through with the public communication process set-out, and
2. The progress of the disease.
I thought it was an interesting decision to have this briefing at the White House and to have John Brennan as the first one up to brief. There is not, however, enough information to make much meaning — yet — of these decisions.
It will be interesting to see what the public and media do with this briefing. But, to me, it was a very effective example of a good risk communication intervention. I certainly welcome your impressions and analysis via the comment function.
In terms of follow-through beyond the White House, at 3:00 pm (eastern) on Sunday there was a media teleconference with the CDC’s Dr. Anne Shuchat. The transcript of the teleconference is available and packed with helpful information.
At 6:00 am (eastern) on Sunday the BBC has just posted a new headline story: Mexico flu sparks worldwide fear.
Global alarm at swine flu outbreak, graces the Boston Globe’s frontpage.
Swine flu spreads panic in Mexico City, is the headline on USAToday’s website. (USAToday does not produce a print product on Sundays)
The Times Online, probably the most understated of the Murdoch media empire, offers, “Fear of pandemic as killer flu strain spreads.”
On Saturday afternoon the CDC released a new Health Advisory. Combined with other communications pieces, the health advisory might have been a helpful risk communication tool. But it is clearly oriented to the health care community, not to the media or general public. Just as the CDC is working to anticipate the needs of public health officials and clinicians, there is a need to anticipate the needs of the media and the public. Contrast the CDC’s Health Advisory to the NYC Health Department’s Saturday announcement (see last post from Saturday below). The NYC statement is sensitive to context and public implications in a way the CDC statement is not.
(Editorial note: On Saturday I was regularly checking the CDC website and clearing my cache. While it could certainly be the result of user error, I was not seeing the 3:00 pm time-stamped statement as late as 5:45 pm.)
The White House blog, a usually lively and user-friendly place, merely points to the largely dormant CDC website for Swine Flu information. In his media briefings White House spokesperson, Robert Gibbs, has emphasized that the Homeland Security Council, under the leadership of John Brennan, is monitoring the situation in the United States and Mexico. UPDATE: Appearing this morning on Meet the Press, Reuters quotes Mr. Gibb’s as saying, “It is important for the public to understand that we are taking proper precautions to address anything that happens, it’s not a time to panic.”
Sunday morning on CNN, Sanjay Gupta, a physician once considered a possible Surgeon-General, interviewed a CDC senior official. (As of 8:30 am eastern I cannot yet find a weblink, but expect it will soon be added to the CNN House Call website.)
Late on Saturday (very late Geneva-time) the WHO released a statement that includes, “After reviewing available data on the current situation, Committee members identified a number of gaps in knowledge about the clinical features, epidemiology, and virology of reported cases and the appropriate responses. The Committee advised that answers to several specific questions were needed to facilitate its work. The Committee nevertheless agreed that the current situation constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.”
Fear of the unknown is a predictable human response. We can sympathize, even admire, the WHO committee’s acknowledgement of the null hypothesis. I would suggest the world’s physician needs to better acknowledge the role of an effective bedside manner.
Media are telling us about new diagnoses in New Zealand. Otherwise, there is not much new information, which is one of the reasons the media is shifting its attention from cause (biology) to effect (psychology). This will, in any case, be the tendency of journalist generalists (and even more the tendency of bloggers and such) unless the risk communications operation is consistently providing new — or even re-packaged — facts.
An early morning report from Bloomberg, Swine Flu Emergency Caused by New Variant of Old Bug, is one of the more informative and least bombastic of the media reports. But even here it is hard to read without a slight increase in one’s blood pressure.