The UK government has taken a largely traditional marketing approach with the “Catch It, Bin It, Kill It” campaign to inform the public about personal hygiene matters in the face of the swine flu pandemic.
One of the problems with this strategy is that speed of response is impacted by the time needed to produce materials (adverts, direct mail, posters etc). Likewise such campaigns are costly – just do the maths on mailing every home in the UK.
In comparison, public relations has to respond immediately to emerging issues and crises. Reuters noted incidents of the disease in the US on 21 April, whilst the timeline of swine flu shows the first WHO Disease Outbreak Notice was issued on 24 April, with the Health Protection Agency published its first press release on the outbreak the same day.
The story quickly led to front page headlines and broadcast coverage but the UK government’s advertising did not begin until 29 April – which is surprising as it is using a recycled campaign initially launched in 2007. Indeed, the information leaflet is not due to be distributed until this coming week
Although the made-for-television adverts are also on YouTube, could more have been done to pro-actively use online communications for engaging with public concerns?
An easy to recall web address should have been available and promoted as part of public statements given to the media. Of course, the obvious www.swineflu.com and other derivatives are already taken, but I haven’t heard a web address cited in any of the news coverage (and only a phone number is given in the advertising).
Such “dark sites” are not a new idea (see Ed Lee‘s 101 on the topic). There are two relevant sites: Direct Gov claims to have “everything you need to know” and you can opt for RSS and mobile phone text updates . The NHS also has useful information on its website. And, both do come up as sponsored links under Google and YouTube searches for “swine flu”.
There is a lack of use of multi-media on both sites (beyond reproducing the tv and radio adverts) and there seems to have been little attempt by the UK authorities to use social networking sites – despite the fact that Facebook alone is reported to have 17 million unique users in the UK. Several swine flu Facebook groups have been set up (one of which has over 44,000 members), but these seem to have been started by members of the public.
The US Center for Disease Control and and Prevention apparently has recognised the need to use social media as comprehensively as possible, including video and Twitter. Again, the swineflu Twitter name does not appear to have been taken by an official organisation, even though Tweets have only been made on this since 23 April.
Another thing that needs to be more evident in such emerging crises is ensuring the media consistently provide links to the official channels on their sites. Here, the UK is doing better: the Wall Street Journal lacks any link to the US CDC information, but the BBC has links to both this and the UK’s HPA.
Any crisis management plan must include online and social media these days, whilst ensuring standard media relations activities are anticipated and managed. But it is questionable whether traditional marketing has any place in the crisis comms toolkit – unless it can move much faster.
After all, by the time most residents in the UK receive their swine flu leaflet this week, incidents of the disease will undoubtedly be in decline.
Interestingly, one of the first links that comes up for a Google search of Preparing for Emergencies is a spoof: http://www.preparingforemergencies.co.uk/.
Maybe if the UK government had taken a longer-term strategy back then, there would be a memorable one-stop site which could have built some equity and a reputation for the first place to go for crisis public information, with links and embedded multi-media to accommodate any emerging scenario.