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Story from the Field: Health Officials Act as Information Ambassadors

March 25, 2010

Attacking a Pandemic in a Big City

When you are a health department in a big city with a diverse population, how do you reach people to tell them to get vaccinated against H1N1? How do you reach out to communities that may not know the health department?

When faced with the H1N1 pandemic the Houston Department of Health and Human Services (HDHHS) attacked these problems strategically and methodically. Houston’s public health officials implemented a robust incident command structure and established a list of directives that included communications and community outreach.

They didn’t act alone, but took advantage of liaisons and partners who were in close contact with community residents. One of their main directives was to provide accurate and timely information on the spread and severity of H1N1 to the city’s mayor and council, the Houston police and fire departments, and the school districts in the area. Influenza-related guidance was also provided to citizens, school districts, day care centers, faith communities, businesses, hospitals, and healthcare providers.

In addition to putting out fact sheets and brochures, the health department made efforts to clearly identify and brand itself as a trusted authority during the pandemic. The public could look to find the health department’s “Fight the Flu” red shield logo prominently displayed on brochures distributed at churches, schools, and business in the area—as well as on staff and volunteers’ T-shirts. HDHHS also created a branded, targeted presence online through their Facebook page and Twitter alerts.

Tailored Communication and Outreach Tactics

Information ambassadors brought their message of vaccination and prevention directly to the community and to the groups who could most benefit from it. In order to communicate information on a more personal level, HDHHS mobilized Community Relations Specialists to deliver posters and provide information and materials to key regional partners, churches, schools, and civic organizations. These staff members also helped to bring the printed word to people by interacting closely with at-risk groups such as pregnant women.

Information was also tailored to reach specific audiences. HDHHS staff, as well as volunteers from health and education industries, gave presentations to both academic and lay audiences. Epidemiological staff presented and communicated their findings to academic audiences to offer technical understanding of the spread of H1N1.

One of the LHDs main directives was also to engage the local print, online, and broadcast media. Media relations staff contacted a diverse list of media outlets that included ethnic and foreign media, online medical newsletters, local television stations, and magazines. The staff and services of HDHHS were featured in online videos on vaccine arrival and proper hand sanitizing.

The health department took a very proactive approach by reaching out through a number of channels. In order to reach the media, press releases were distributed to a list of print, radio, and television outlets. The team’s media relations staff went into full gear to get in touch and spread the message about vaccination.

By using a multi-pronged approach to reaching out to the public, HDHHS was able to expand its communications capabilities. This model can be adjusted according to community needs in order to respond to public health emergencies.

HDHHS Tips for Conducting a Pandemic Response Campaign:

  • Develop a comprehensive and graphical response model that entails all aspects of the operations, preferably a one-pager.
  • Develop an easily recognizable, simple, friendly, reliable, and urgent brand for the outreach efforts (logo, T-shirts, fact sheets, etc.).
  • Launch a comprehensive and concise Web site that targets all affected groups with specific information, sites, public health messages, FAQs, contact information, etc.
  • Leverage a proven incident management structure, such as FEMA''s National Incident Management System (NIMS), to more effectively coordinate internal and external partnership updates.
  • Establish an emergency response team (preferably before the outbreak) that is comprised of cross-functional and content-specific members.
  • Set up a mission control war (command) call center to intercept community calls.
  • Meet with cross-functional teams and partners daily via situational update meetings to insure timely and accurate communication, as well as to keep everyone on the same page. (Best to be sure meeting intervals are consistent and have an incident commander with lead section representatives.)
  • Provide ongoing surveillance and public communications of diverse media sources (TV, radio, print, social media networks, etc.).
  • Provide ongoing community training to proactively address both the lay and academic or technical stakeholders’ needs.

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