Flu-blogging, Week 5 – It’s Good to be the Queen

This week on the HHS Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog, I indulge my rich fantasy life and crown myself the Queen of Pandemic Communications. In my final post for that blog, I lay out what my ideal pandemic flu preparedness campaign would look like.

Coincidentally, today Craig wrote about how to extend Mack Collier’s brand evangelist framework to social marketing. This is an approach that I have previously advocated for how to harness the energies already being directed toward pandemic preparedness by scores of well-informed citizens who have organized themselves into online communities. Craig’s post helps to think through what would need to happen to create the Citizen Pandemic Preparedness Corps I propose in my post.

I just want to share a few resources for those who are interested in finding out more about how to communicate about pandemic flu:

  • The Communication Initiative has a pageful of descriptions of campaigns, how-to guides and other resources specifically about avian flu.
  • Minnesota’s Code Ready website offers a customizable tool to help you put together your preparedness supplies, including the numbers of servings of each type of food you will need to have on hand for periods ranging from 3 days to one year. Many pandemic flu experts recommend having a 3-month supply of food and water for each person in your household. This website helps you figure out what that means in practical terms for a shopping list.

And, of course, lots more information at pandemicflu.gov and the Flu Wiki. Now that the HHS blog is winding down, I suppose I’ll have to abdicate the crown. I still do have to fill the royal storehouses though, just in case.

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Online Video for the Little Fish

This afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting Steven Starr, founder (and CEO turned Chairman) of Revver.com. In case you are not familiar with Revver, it’s a video sharing site that tracks and monetizes videos and shares the ad revenue with the content creators (unlike sites like YouTube and Google Video). We were lucky to get Steven to come speak to our Entertainment Resource Professionals Association group, and it was a nice intimate setting in which to pummel Steven with our questions and pick his brain. Steven took it all with good humor, and his do-gooder ethos (apparently developed while working with Bob Marley) fit right in with our group.

If you are reading this blog, you probably already know about how the entertainment environment is shifting from being dominated by media conglorporations towards a more democratic model where anyone with a camera and some creativity can become a producer or a star. Power to the people and all that. Revver is contributing toward this shift, with a mission of empowering and rewarding creators of great content.

We had a lively discussion about how nonprofits can jump into the world of online video, and here are some of the ideas that Steven and others offered:

  • Don’t forget that online videos need to be SHORT (under 3 minutes). If you have more to say, do it with a series of episodes of 3 minutes each. Each one should advance a story, be entertaining and have some sort of “cliffhanger” at the end so that people will want to watch the next one.
  • Authenticity is key. Anything that looks like it was created by a PR agency will not be of as much interest as something made by a “real person.”
  • Look for your favorite online video creators (especially those who already have a following) and contract with them to make a bunch of videos for your organization to post online. The cost per video will be a fraction of a standard PSA, and the video creators will be thrilled to get money to do what they already love and are good at. “Create your own celebrities.”
  • Run a contest for the best video on your topic, with a prize of some sort.
  • Find existing content that matches up well with your message or organization and buy ads on those videos via Revver.
  • Bring in your own sponsor for your videos and get an additional 20% of the revenue, or at some point down the line, Revver may be able to match up causes with interested sponsors.
  • Ask people in your own network (e.g., your organization’s members and supporters) to take your videos and put them on their websites, blogs, social networking pages and send them via email to syndicate the content as much as possible.
  • Ask people to make videos around a common theme, then use excerpts from each to make a movie. Steven gave the example of people from all over trying to get to CBGB for its final closing night making videos about their experiences, which could then be made into a longer length movie that weaves the different storylines together.

Steven is now putting the finishing touches on a documentary he’s been making about water mentoring about the global water crisis (correction per Steven), called “For Love of Water.” It’s been a labor of love over several years, and hopefully it will be coming out soon, so watch for it.

When I came home after the meeting I was flipping through an old Far Side book I’d gotten from the library for my son (who is now discovering the joys of Larson). One of the cartoons resonated exactly with what we had just been talking about:

I then saw, while poking around in my feed reader, that Ashley Cecil had a new time-lapse video of her latest painting, which is hosted on Revver. I clicked on the ad at the end (because, as I learned today, the artists do not receive any money unless people click on the ads), which turned out to be linked to a site called What Kind of World Do You Want.com. Taking off on the Five for Fighting (careful – link has audio!) song “World,” the site encourages people to “tell the world what kind of world you want and raise money for charity by making and uploading a video of yourself, your friends or your family answering the question, “What Kind Of World Do You Want”.” Or by watching the clips posted by others and clicking on the sponsor’s ad, a donation of up to 49 cents will go to one of six selected charities. While the contest seems to be over, it’s an interesting example of how a nonprofit might structure a similar contest.

For organizations that don’t have a lot of money or the ability to create and run TV commercials, the opportunity that online video offers to get your message out is enormous. But remember that no matter how “worthy” your organization may be of attention, you will not get noticed unless your content is engaging and entertaining. It’s a true meritocracy out there (at least as judged by the whims of the audience), so find the people who know what they are doing and join forces. Dip a toe into the water and come on in!

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HHS Flu Blog Success?

The preliminary outcomes of the HHS Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog and leadership forum held on June 13 are starting to emerge. While my last take on the situation came at a time when it seemed the blog was acting as a lightning rod for all the frustrations with government inaction felt by flublogia, the comments that emerged from the forum are encouraging. It seems the blog and forum may have somewhat bridged the gap between these two necessary partners in pandemic preparation.

The forum was liveblogged by two tireless unnamed bloggers from Ogilvy who did an amazing job of providing summaries of each speaker and session as soon as possible, uploading pictures of the proceedings and responding to requests from commenters (including passing along a technical question for Flu Wiki’s Greg Dworkin to ask of CDC head Julie Gerberding).

Several of the speakers made it clear that they have been paying attention to the goings-on at the blog, and that they are aware of the efforts of the flubies.

HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt’s remarks included this mention (though I’m not sure I would call posting without responding to comments “interactions”):

We have also launched our first “blog summit” on pandemic preparedness. Many of you have participated in the summit — at blog.pandemicflu.gov. If you haven’t, there’s still time. It will run for another two weeks. I have greatly enjoyed my interactions with you and thousands of other engaged individuals. I am sure you will find the open dialogue on the site very useful.

Stephanie Marshall, the Director of Communications at HHS, said:

Our online research also revealed that there is an online community of “flubies” who are informed and already preparing. And they’re on the Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog.

And Admiral John Ogwunobi, who incurred the most wrath for his blog posts, extended an olive leaf during his closing remarks:

As a noteworthy end to the Pandemic Flu Leadership Forum, Dr. Agwunobi invited others to make closing remarks. (“My handlers are shaking their heads and telling me not to do this – but I’m gonna do it!”) He encouraged Dr. Greg Dworkin of Flu Wiki to share his thoughts. The two have recently become acquainted as contributors on the HHS blog.

– our blog community will appreciate this –

Dr. Dworkin: One of the things we’ve learned today, over the past three weeks, and will continue to learn, is that there are a lot of potential recruits for this effort. . . A lot of people who are already engaged and feel strongly about this want to help.”

Dr. Agwunobi: I didn’t realize until I became an avid reader of the HHS blog that there is an army of people who are already preparing and want to help further this goal of preparedness. (I also learned you have to be completely open and honest and forthcoming in that world or they won’t treat you very nicely!)

Because one of the main criticisms by the commenters on the HHS blog had been that they didn’t think that HHS was listening, having a spotlight shown on the flubie community, particularly with Greg Dworkin as their able spokesman (who was added to on the panel discussion at the last minute and included in the press conference afterward), was empowering. Kudos to whoever at HHS or Ogilvy made the decision to give him a bigger role. Here is Greg’s summary of the results of the day from his perspective.

Michael Coston of Avian Flu Diary offered his take on what had come out of the summit, which was echoed in many of the comments on the HHS blog and on other forums:

While I know many were expecting more out of all of this, I think we maybe got more than we realize. We’ve got a clear clarion call from the Secretary of HHS, to go forth into our communities and spread the pandemic awareness message. We’ve been validated, at least unofficially, as being partners in the national effort to prepare for a pandemic. And our voices, for the first time, have been heard on this issue.

I suspect we may have surprised a few folks with our knowledge, our passion, and our dedication.

The reality is; no one is going to get everything they want out of this leadership summit. Many questions will go unanswered, many policy decisions will be withheld pending consultation and review, and concrete results may yet be months away. This experiment, like all experiments, was conducted without knowing in advance what the end result would be.

The HHS is mixing ingredients, looking for a catalyst that will spark a reaction among previously inert components. Praying for cold fusion in a test tube. We can be that catalyst. Regardless of how we feel about what has, or hasn’t been done to date by government agencies, we can take the lead in our communities and promote pandemic awareness. If enough of us do that, we can start a groundswell around the nation, and hopefully show the rest of the world how it is done.
Despite some early hitches in the process, and a miscommunication or two along the way, I’d have to say the Leadership Summit has advanced the ball down the field a bit. We have recruited a few more community leaders into the fold, and we have engaged in a open, and often spirited conversation with a Federal agency.

So, while there are still many detractors who feel that whatever HHS does is too little, too late, it seems that communication channels have at least been opened. HHS has developed a healthy respect for the knowledge and engagement of the flubies, who in turn are feeling like their efforts are finally being validated. Whether HHS does the right thing and works with this active community as a partner in building the necessary grassroots movement has yet to be seen, but this is a hopeful beginning.

I’ll be posting more soon on the HHS blog about my thoughts on the content of the leadership forum.

UPDATE: From Greg, you know your issue has arrived when it’s the subject of a Dilbert comic.

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Flu-blogging, Week 3 – HHS vs the Flubies

Watching the goings-on this week at the HHS Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog and the impassioned “behind the scenes” discussions at a couple of pandemic flu message boards (PFI Forum & Flu Wiki Forum) brought to mind the analogy of how residents of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area think about each others’ cities. In my experience living in both regions, I’ve found that people in the Bay Area are somewhat disdainful of LA and feel an intense rivalry with their southern neighbor, while Angelenos don’t give much thought to anywhere north of Santa Barbara. Substitute HHS as the clueless colossus, and the “flubies” (concerned citizens that have been thinking about and preparing for pandemic flu for a long time) as the hypersensitive underdogs.

When the HHS blog began, there was hope on both sides that the process would result in public participation and dialogue about pandemic flu issues. HHS has gotten that in spades, but it might not have been in the form they envisioned. Each of the blog posts by the various government and other sector participants has garnered vast numbers of comments (as many as 152 on a single post, though most are getting somewhere between 20-50). Sounds like a lot of public participation, doesn’t it? It turns out that the vast majority of the commenters are flubies, many of whom are slicing and dicing the blog posts based on their own extensive knowledge of the issues and what they think is necessary for the country to be prepared if a pandemic strikes. They are well-informed and have obviously thought through the key points they want the government to take into account as it sets its pandemic flu policy.

The main point that the flubies are trying to push is that the current government recommendation of stockpiling a 2-week supply of food, water and medical supplies is woefully inadequate based on current knowledge of how infection cycles and supply chain disruptions will likely happen, and should be closer to 8 to 12 weeks worth of supplies. They feel that HHS is downplaying the need to prepare and not taking worst case scenarios into account.

When the HHS blog was announced, many were cautiously optimistic that they now had a seat at the table, and that they would actually be engaging in a conversation with the policymakers. But when HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt did not respond to the comments on his posts, some took it as a sign that he was not listening. And when some moderated comments either did not show up on the blog or took a long time in appearing, elaborate theories as to which words or topics were being censored started coming out. Some tried to read between the lines of others’ comments, wondering if they were HHS plants who were testing how much the flubies knew and how they would react to various communication approaches.

The proverbial straw came in Week 3, when Admiral John O. Agwunobi, the Assistant Secretary for Health at the HHS wrote a blog post reiterating the government’s recommendations for stockpiling that came across to many as patronizing and dismissive. The poor guy didn’t know what hit him, as enraged flubies unleashed their anger, sarcasm and finely reasoned arguments in the comments. Amongst themselves in their own forums, the attacks were even harsher. (Fla_Medic has a good summary of the situation on the Flu Wiki.) Admiral Agunobi later wrote a second post sharing his surprise that his words had sparked such a strong response, and he backpedaled somewhat.

I have a feeling that HHS is getting more than it bargained for with this blog, and the question is what they will be doing with all of these comments. Will they stick with a predetermined set of recommendations, or will they take the valuable input of people who have thought through in painful detail what they need to do to protect their families and communities if and when a pandemic strikes? Tomorrow (June 13) is the HHS Pandemic Flu Leadership Forum, where they will be discussing policy recommendations, and it will be interesting to see the direction the conversation takes. Greg Dworkin, who runs the Flu Wiki and its forum, will be speaking at the event and presenting the flubie community’s concerns. The Forum is supposed to be liveblogged, though I don’t know who will be doing that on site.

While I wasn’t invited to come to DC to participate in person, my contribution to the HHS blog this week came out of my dismay at the fact that these true community leaders have been mostly ignored, when they are the best natural resource the government has in spreading the word at the local level. I’m advocating a dual-pronged approach to building public awareness by combining a government-led education campaign with a program cultivating and supporting the grassroots activists through the social marketing equivalent of a “brand ambassador” or “customer evangelist” program. My strategy seemed to resonate with the flubie community. The worst thing HHS could do would be to ignore, or worse, alienate this network of people who feel passionately about the issue. Read the post and let me know what you think about my recommendations, either here or there.

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Flu-blogging, Week 2

In my latest post to the HHS Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog this week, I talk about the need to focus on building awareness about the issue before trying to get people to take action. We can’t jump from practically zero awareness of pandemic flu and its implications all the way to full community preparedness in a short amount of time. I talk about how we can use the Stages of Change model to think through the types of messages and marketing approaches to reach people where they are in the behavior change process. I hope you’ll read the post and leave a comment to add your ideas to this innovative idea-generation platform for the HHS.


We’ve all had the flu. It hits us, knocks us out for a few days, maybe even a week. Then it goes away and we get on with our lives. But what if it weren’t so simple? What if many of the people we knew got sick, and some of them, especially our children and our older parents, actually died from it? People would have to stay home to take care of themselves and their loved ones or to try to avoid getting sick. Hospitals would be overloaded, and many of the health care workers would be out sick themselves. Food and other supplies wouldn’t get to the stores, businesses would have to shut down, schools would be closed. How would we get by when the institutions we rely on are inoperable and we can’t venture out of the house?

For those of us who were not around in 1918, or did not have relatives who died in that flu epidemic, this scenario is hard to imagine in this day and age. But the so-called bird flu (the H5N1 virus) has just been called the “greatest global health threat of the 21st century” by the Director-General of the World Health Organization. The likelihood of a global flu pandemic looks now to be a matter of when, rather than if.

The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, is convening a leadership forum on pandemic preparedness on June 13, including leaders from every sector to discuss how to help Americans become more prepared for a possible flu pandemic. As part of this forum, the Department is also hosting a blog summit to extend the conversation before and after the forum in DC.

I’ve been invited to be one of the bloggers on the Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog, which will be active from May 22 to June 27, with a different question for discussion each week. I’m honored to be among contributors like Georges Benjamin, the Executive Director of the American Public Health Association; Pierre Omidyar, the Founder and Chairman of eBay and the Omidyar Network; Irwin Redlener, the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness; Greg Dworkin of the Flu Wiki; and many other distinguished professionals. Thank you to Beth Kanter for recommending me to be part of this effort.

My first post is now up on preparing for persuasion, where I talk about how we can use social marketing to encourage people to take action to prepare for a possible flu pandemic. Each of the previous posts before mine have garnered a slew of comments (38, 54 and 91 each so far!), and I expect the conversation to continue to gain steam as we move forward. I hope you’ll come by to read our posts and contribute your thoughts. This is a critical issue for us as marketers and communicators to be prepared for so that we can make sure that the rest of the country is prepared as well. Hopefully, like insurance, we’ll never need to take advantage of our readiness. But even if there is not a flu pandemic any time soon, there will, sadly, always be other disasters that those preparations can help mitigate.

Kudos to the Department of Health and Human Services for recognizing the value a blog can bring in terms of involving constituents, getting feedback and extending the conversation beyond the participants of the one-day forum. For more information on pandemic flu and how to protect your family and community, check out PandemicFlu.gov or the Flu Wiki.

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