Swine Flu Outbreak: A Moment of Truth for Associations and Social Media

Photo by videoplacebo via FlickrHealth care associations have had their hands full this week, gathering and disseminating the latest on the swine flu outbreak in the U.S. It’s moments like this when associations prove their worth – in times of urgency, if not crisis.

The flu’s outbreak in the country occurred last week in Texas, where the Texas Medical Association acted quickly to alert its members about what had happened. By Monday this was a certifiable mainstream media story, for better and for worse. The job for associations wasn’t so much to alert their members anymore, as to separate the good information from the bad and provide measured, authoritative guidance.

Our state Department of Public Health made our job easier. It started issuing regular alerts, held statewide conference calls, and established focused incident teams. We relayed the state’s information via our own Flu Advisory e-mail alerts, and used our website to highlight state and federal flu information feeds, as well as our own flu resources. As of Monday, we were still playing it low-keyed, since there weren’t any confirmed cases yet in Massachusetts, or even in New England. We didn’t want to stoke any hysteria.

Things changed significantly Wednesday morning, when the state announced the first two confirmed cases in Massachusetts – two school children who had just returned with their family from Mexico.

We changed our approach, deciding to put all our media touchpoints into play. We created a graphical banner on our home page, to provide easy access to our information. We focused our blog exclusively on flu information. We set up on Twitter account and invited followers. We set up a new Facebook page focused on the flu.

We didn’t add anything special to the state’s information. But we also didn’t assume that all our members, or the public, had access to all the official information at our disposal. So we reached out to people wherever they could get their information, whether it was by email, on websites, social networks, RSS feeds, or Twitter.

I’m also hoping that users of these media will contribute to our knowledge, which would make a time consuming process more worthwhile. We don’t yet have the tools to write once and syndicate to our all channels with one click – we will someday, I hope, but not now. For now, it’s a laborious step by step process, but necessary activity in our evermore fragmented media world.

Update

Boston Herald image: April 30, 2009If you want evidence of how some media will stoke the hysteria, see this image at the left. It’s the front page this morning of the Boston Herald. As Mo Vaughn, a former Red Sox slugger, once said, “Stupid people in Boston! Stupid!”

The Herald is almost irrelevant in this market now, but this idiocy confirms the need for associations to be measured, trusted and reliable sources of information.