The swirling concern around the spread of COVID-19 (aka coronavirus) brings to mind our work for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment during the H1N1 Influenza pandemic of 2009. Evolution Communications Agency Principals Katie Trexler Kern and Erich Kirshner were contracted to support CDPHE’s communications around H1N1, and many of the lessons we learned then seem relevant today.
As with COVID-19, there was not a vaccine immediately available for the H1N1 flu and that made a lot of people afraid. While the community waited for the vaccine, we worked hard to communicate simple, but important, steps everyone could do to protect themselves from getting sick — frequently wash your hands, sneeze or cough into your sleeve, don’t touch surfaces in public places and, if you’re feeling sick, stay home from work or school.
These are steps all of us should remember, whether we’re trying to combat COVID-19, H1N1 or even the common cold.
We also learned that one of the biggest challenges for those in public health is managing people’s fears about a new and potentially deadly virus. H1N1 was a scary virus and worries (founded and unfounded) about the danger it posed caused as many issues as the virus itself. We’re seeing the same pattern now with facemasks running in short supply and the stock market being rocked.
Managing people’s fears around pandemics, or potential pandemics, is one of the toughest challenges a professional communicator will ever face. You need to acknowledge there is some danger while persuading people to see the value in remaining calm and taking the actions public health officials recommend.
Communicating about a rapidly spreading virus is also complicated by the fact that what you say in the morning might be hopelessly out of date by the afternoon. For example, a message that schools are open and safe might switch to a message that there’s been an outbreak and schools need to close.
Finally, H1N1 gave our nation a reminder of the critical role of public health departments.
We are reminded of the importance of being able to trust the experts (in this case, our public health departments). They care about the health and well-being of our communities and have trained for situations like the one we face today.
We can all help them do their job by listening closely to their messages and instructions and doing our part (even if that is as simple as washing our hands and sneezing into our sleeves).