5 Lessons for public health marketers from the 2009 flu pandemic

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With the spread of ebola in the news, I can’t help but remember the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009.

Five years ago, we were working with the Public Health Agency of Canada to inform Canadians about the risks of the virus, and to help promote healthy preventative behaviours.

It was a busy time, with teams working sometimes almost around-the-clock to reach as many people as possible through digital and conventional media, but in the end we both achieved our objectives and learned some important lessons.

As the world faces another public health crisis (and indeed, another “regular” flu season) I wanted to share these five key lessons with other health marketers:

1. Misinformation is the most dangerous contagion

When the first reports of “Swine Flu” started to appear in the media in the spring of 2009, the first place most Canadians looked for information was Google. Our team worked quickly to purchase flu- and symptom-related keywords for Search Engine Marketing so that the Public Health Agency of Canada’s credible information appeared. This was an important move to counteract the contradictory and confusing information that began to appear in media, wellness sites, and opportunistic business offerings.

Our team of health marketers created this Fight Flu bus interior ad for PHAC as part of a healthcare marketing campaign. Headline reads: Know what to do to fight the flu

2. Provide simple and achievable prevention advice

As with ebola, personal and social hygiene was a major part of the public health strategy with H1N1. As the virus reached pandemic levels, our initial ads focussed on simple actions like washing your hands and covering your mouth woith your arm (rather than hand) when you cough.

This strategy proved quite successful in Canada, where post-campaign research demonstrated that “of those members of the public asked if they had seen the Public Health Agency of Canada’s infection prevention ads that ran in the fall of 2009, almost half (46 percent) reported taking action as a result, of which roughly six in 10 (59 percent) stated (without prompting) that they started to wash their hands more often.”

We also had unexpected help spreading the message from This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

3. Be ready

The reason our campaign with the Public Health Agency of Canada was able to be in-market so quickly is because a flu pandemic is not something that takes the world by surprise. Messaging and creative had actually been developed more than a year in advance, in case avian influenza (H5N1) became a greater threat.

The H5N1 advertising was advance-tested in focus groups across Canada, and held in readiness. When H1N1 arose instead, the communication plan was quickly and easily modified and rolled out.

4. Move quickly

No matter how well-prepared you are for a public health crisis, the most important thing is to be agile and ready to react to changes in the situation. While TV ads required a fair amount of production time, our team was also on call at all times to develop, produce, and place more up-to-date messaging in quick-turnaround media such as banner ads, radio, and print. With design and audio templates in place, we became experts at quick turnaround.

4. Give a reassuring face to the fight

Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer at that time, was an evidence-based professional respected by the medical establishment and public alike. When the H1N1 flu vaccine was ready, we worked with Dr. Butler-Jones to get his reassuring image and voice on all advertising, encouraging people to get the shot.

Canada ended up having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, estimated by the Health Portfolio at between 40 and 45 percent. As a drive-to-web campaign, the analytics were also good: The Public Health Agency of Canada’s H1N1 web content was visited 6.4 million times, with over 20 million pages of content viewed, and more than 200,000 H1N1 information products downloaded.

What would we do differently now?

A lot has changed in five years. In 2009, the corporate communication opportunities on major social media platforms were just starting to take off, and government agencies did not yet have policies in place to take full advantage of them.

Nonetheless, we did develop a social media strategy for the H1N1 campaign based on Twitter. However, the crisis ended before it was implemented.

Today, major social media channels all have targeted advertising products that can reach people more efficiently than ever before. While mainstream media (including digital banners) and SEM would still be a big part of the plan, if we were doing the campaign today we would be taking full advantage of social media’s almost-infinite segmentation and ability to provide instant analytics and public feedback on message efficacy.

Need help communicating in a crisis?

Contact Acart Communications today

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