a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

No time to delay fixing H1N1 miscues

By now it should be apparent to everyone in Canada there have been problems with the way governments have been communicating with the public during the current H1N1 crisis.

The flue pandemic may be far from over. But already there are widespread predictions of some sort of judicial inquiry when the pandemic is finally over to sort out who screwed up what at which level of government.

Such an inquiry would be a good idea when the time comes. But that doesn't mean Ottawa and the provinces should wait for an inquiry instead of doing some quick fixing.

After all, this could be a two-part pandemic. In 2003, public officials had to announce that SARS was back just a few weeks after pronouncing that crisis over.

And certainly this pandemic will not be our last health crisis.

In fairness, changes have already started. Ottawa's admission last week that it made a mistake in relying on just one supplier instead of two for vaccine was a good start. Contrition and candor never hurt when it is necessary to get a program back on track.

Ottawa seems to have made Dr. David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief medical officer of health, the lead spokesperson in this crisis instead of Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. This is a good move. The honourable minister needs to do some more apprenticeship time.

Ottawa is also doing more prominent advertising featuring Dr. Butler-Jones and telling Canadians where they can find out more information about H1N1.

All these things should have been done earlier. But better late than never.

All levels of government should do something about confusion. Blasting information at people without any kind of organization or strategy doesn't automatically mean transparency.

As Dr. John Maxted, an associate director at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, noted recently, Public Health Agency of Canada may have been overzealous in trying to be transparent. There was often confusion in the way the agency was rushing information to the public only to see it change, he said.

There also have been inconsistencies in information doled out by different levels of government involved.

This would suggest a problem of which most public relations professionals are well aware. The professional communicators are being handed a communications plan and told to implement it instead of being involved in strategic planning.

There needs to be a common and strategic narrative with two or three key messages that will stand up from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and for several weeks. Confusing people or not caring about their comprehension is as bad as secrecy.

Let's hope there is time before the next public health crisis for all levels of governments and health bureaucrats to learn from the mistakes of this one.

As always, I welcome your views.

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