Public Health Crisis Communications
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Holmes Report
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Public Health Crisis Communications

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) faced two unprecedented public health crises: anthrax and West Nile Virus. As the nation’s premier agency for public health information, CDC was thrust into the media spotlight, overwhelmed by a demand for up-to-date information and spokespersons on these epidemics.

Paul Holmes

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) faced two unprecedented public health crises: anthrax and West Nile Virus. As the nation’s premier agency for public health information, CDC was thrust into the media spotlight, overwhelmed by a demand for up-to-date information and spokespersons on these epidemics. Ogilvy PR helped transform CDC’s communications crises into successful, proactive public education opportunities.
Postal workers were dying of anthrax inhalation. CDC’s role was unclear to the media and the public (were they investigating the outbreaks, taking preventive measures, calming public panic?), and the government was perceived as being reactive to the crisis rather than proactive in handling it. Another public health crisis soon followed with the nationwide West Nile Virus outbreaks.
What was CDC doing about it? With these outbreaks, public panic could quickly mount due to the lack of knowledge about transmission and prevention. How could Americans prevent further anthrax and West Nile infections? Who was at risk? CDC had to address public concerns to calm people’s fears and empower them to take preventive actions.
The CDC and Ogilvy PR worked together to demonstrate CDC’s credibility and to position CDC’s director and scientists as the unifying voice in public health.
CDC needed to reach America’s general population quickly with anthrax and West Nile messages. Ogilvy PR would:
· Produce a video package featuring CDC’s top scientists to help create a better understanding of anthrax and its causes, highlight the progress in the investigation and promote prevention measures.
· Release television public service announcements (PSA) on West Nile Virus prevention for states to use as the virus spread from the East to West Coast.
· Manage “live,” daily press telebriefings and webcasts (a “first” for CDC) to update the American public on anthrax and West Nile Virus.
· Pair these materials with proactive interviews demonstrating CDC’s commitment to disease prevention and health promotion.
To enhance public credibility, Ogilvy PR positioned CDC’s director and scientists as the unifying voice in daily, scheduled press telebriefings on anthrax and the West Nile Virus. Ogilvy PR developed a longer-than-usual, behind-the-scenes “Inside the Anthrax Investigation” VNR. We offered footage that news stations needed to tell a balanced story—“exclusive” biohazard laboratory scenes and mobilization of the national pharmaceutical stockpile. These images were paired with proactive interviews demonstrating CDC’s commitment to disease prevention and health promotion.
When it became clear that the West Nile Virus was spreading across the country, Ogilvy PR developed concepts for a localized PSA, then shot, produced and edited it in three weeks—a process that usually takes months. The PSA addressed steps on how to protect oneself from virus exposure measures using mosquito repellent, eliminating standing water collections and wearing long sleeves.
For CDC’s anthrax VNR, Ogilvy PR advised CDC not to take a defensive approach, but instead use it as a proactive forum to fully explain CDC’s indispensable role in the investigation by its scientists. The VNR provided exclusive, never-before-seen footage inside the most secure of all CDC labs. Ogilvy PR also used footage of the nation’s pharmaceutical stockpile (drugs available to counter anthrax) from secret locations—all to assuage public fear and convey CDC’s readiness to respond.
The West Nile Virus PSA featured a family (separate Caucasian and Latino PSA’s) taking a few simple precautionary measures to lower their risk for infection. Ogilvy PR employed a user-friendly tone in the PSAs to assuage people’s fears. The PSA was localized with state tags and was distributed in both English and Spanish.
Regular “live” press telebriefings continued throughout the anthrax and West Nile epidemics. America’s top print and broadcast media attended these sessions, getting updates from CDC scientists and the opportunity to ask questions.
Ogilvy PR helped CDC reach its communications goals by responding to the media’s need for information and ready access to spokespersons, thus creating a better understanding of the anthrax and West Nile Virus epidemics.
The media briefings educated Americans about anthrax and West Nile Virus, alleviated public fear, built public confidence in the government’s commitment to disease prevention and fostered enhanced relations between the media and CDC. As a result, informed coverage appeared in all of the top-tier national and local media outlets, including all TV networks, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and nationwide local radio and TV stations. In addition, all of the wire services (Associated Press, Reuters and Knight-Ridder) provided informed coverage, resulting in wide pickup by local newspapers.
The anthrax VNR delivered impressive results for CDC: monitoring services confirmed more than 400 prime newscasts.
Ogilvy PR distributed the West Nile Virus PSAs to state health departments who, in turn, marketed the PSA to local stations. In August alone (a high West Nile Virus prevalence month for many states), CDC monitored 1,430 PSA plays in affected states.
 Research showed that Ogilvy PR’s management of these epidemics for CDC met its objectives. CDC was positioned as the major source of public health information on anthrax and West Nile. The public became very quickly aware of these epidemics and precautionary measures. American public awareness of CDC’s role in public health was raised. CDC was perceived as one of the most credible sources for disease prevention/health promotion information.
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