A Digital View on Swine Flu

It’s no secret that the Government was preparing for a flu pandemic – featuring as high as it did in the 2008 National Risk Register. And although the actual outbreak came out of the blue, it’s been acknowledged that the UK was pretty well prepared both in clinical and communications terms.

The COI has been working for a number of months on pandemic flu preparedness (with the Department of Health as the lead department) because from the off the government recognised the importance of digital media for not only getting the word out but for also getting it back.

First thing was to put a strategy in place and then convert that into a plan. This was a challenge because, back then,  we didn’t know when or where it would start, how it would spread, what the reaction would be or even what it would be called. Flexibility and feasibility were essential – both strategy and plan had to be malleable but also achievable.

The strategy has long been one of ‘measured engagement’ – accurate information at the right time and proportionate to the scale of the issue. The plan has been to create and pool assets so that they can be rolled out as required. Events have forced us to be inventive and but we have managed to stick with much of the plan that was in place.

Of course we needed a website – a destination where all the other communications (press, TV, radio, leaflets) could point people to get further information as and when it became available or it was required. Originally we thought to have a special, stand-alone site but over time as the spread of messaging took shape and results of our modelling became clear, we decided to spread the communications across the available government web estate.

In practice, the main sites have probably been the Health Protection Agency (for case updates), Department for Health (for policy statements and health professionals), and NHS Choices and NHS Direct (for advice to the public) because at the moment swine flu is predominantly a health concern. But we have also brought into play Directgov, Business Link and other government department sites: Directgov to be a central point for all public information (as required), Businesslink to be used by businesses and employers, and other departmental sites (like FCO for foreign travel advice) and Defra (for information on links with pig populations).

Mobilising all these sites (while getting others into a state of readiness) and keeping track of all the activity has been no small task. But it is testament to the rapid reactions and hard work of the people behind those sites that we have been able to do a great job to date.

Search engine marketing and display ads were factored in and have very important because most folks find their information not by tapping in URLs but by going to a search engine and using keywords. With SEO taking its time to kick in, PPC and display have been key to getting swine flu pages and their content high up in search results.

And then there is social media. Again the main websites have also been using their established forums, such as Twitter to keep their networks up to date, but in terms of adding into the social media space we have done little. But we have taken a lot out.

Using our Netvibes page and other reporting services, we have been able to keep track of people’s reactions to media reports, the government communications they encounter, conversations, experiences, even the jokes that are going around. We have used this information to make sure that we have the right content coverage and that the word is getting out there effectively.

The CDC in the US has been doing good work in the social media space; some people over here are asking why the UK government is not doing the same. The answer is we are and will do more if we have to, but thankfully, at the moment we don’t. Thankfully we don’t have a depth of data for maps; thankfully we don’t have to do daily video updates to the nation.

The other reason that we haven’t had to exploit social media is because the ‘above the line’ communications have been successful, the media have (in the main) been measured and thorough in their coverage and the peer-to-peer dynamic kicked in very early on. Yes, there was a lot of misinformation to begin with but although that leaky tap will continue to drip, people have been excellent at doing their own research online, getting key updates around and keeping the mood chilled. There is no point in the government wading in where people are doing it for themselves, but if the situation gets worse and more data, content and advice are required, then trust me, we’ll be logging in.

2 thoughts on “A Digital View on Swine Flu

  1. This is a really interesting insight into the approach that the COI have taken, which I agree has been largely successful so far. Although it’s tempting to compare ourselves unfavourably to other countries such as the US, I read a post on an American blog the other day that was marveling at the speed of the British government’s communications response.

    For another insightful perspective on Swine Flu using data modelling to map the ‘news verus death’ ratio, check out Hans Rosling’s video: http://infosthetics.com/archives/2009/05/hans_rosling_video_gapcast_swine_flu_news_versus_death_ratio.html

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