How a 1997 outbreak helped shape CDC’s crisis communication

From avian flu to H1N1, a world of difference in getting the message out to the public.

From avian flu to H1N1, a world of difference in getting the message out to the public

Let’s have a flu flashback to 1997.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta dispatched communication specialist Barbara Reynolds to Hong Kong to deal with H5N1, a type of avian flu. During her two-month stay, she realized the CDC didn’t have the tools to handle large-scale crises, especially in terms of sharing information.

Looking to the future, she wanted to make sure the agency would be better prepared next time. “We needed to rethink what we were trying to do and develop a sense of principles of how to get people to do a better job,” Reynolds says.

This year, a new flu strain hit—H1N1. But the CDC was ready with its own response protocol: CERC (Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication), which Reynolds developed. The CERC plan was used during the SARS outbreak and Hurricane Katrina.

CERC specifies six guidelines. As H1N1 burgeoned, Reynolds emphasized it was especially important for the CDC to follow the first three—be first, be right, and be credible—when delivering information to the media.

“In most disaster situations, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “We have to acknowledge the uncertainty but show how our people are responding.”

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