Crisis Communications: H1N1 in New York City’s Public Schools

What Happened

In mid-May, New York City’s Department of Health (DOH) realized that the H1N1 (swine) flu was spreading in distinct pockets throughout the City, particularly through children, the afflicted, and the elderly. At the Department of Education, we knew that our 1,500+ schools could be a key transmission point for the flu, and we were already seeing higher-than-normal absence rates at selected schools whose geography correlated with DOH’s data.

On the advice of DOH, it became clear that we’d have to close select schools in order to prevent the spread of disease. As importantly, we had to be clear about why were closing particular schools, why others would stay open, and we had to reassure parents and the public that we were taking the right course of action. It’s easy for situations that affect the public health, like H1N1, to quickly spiral into panic.

There aren’t many templates for this sort of thing – public health crises don’t happen that much anymore in the United States. We’ve got a decent public health system that keeps the transmission of communicable diseases and the ill effects of them to a minimum. New York City itself is larger than all but the most populous 12 states, and our public school system alone is larger than the 8 least populous states with 1.1 million students.

What We Did

From the online communications perspective, the first thing we did was decide to make clear that our website should be considered the most reliable source of information.
It’s easy for the media to twist a story and we knew it was critical
for the public to know that the Departments of Health and Education,
along with Mayor Bloomberg’s office, were the *only* official sources
of information.

I placed a key line at the top of our website
that doesn’t sound important, but is – “This page will always contain
the most updated information available.” Citizens are used to the government moving a bit slow,
and they rely heavily on the media. I wanted to set the expectation
from the first moment that our website was a canonical source of

Second, we began listing the “last updated” time on
both our homepage (which gets 9+ million page views per month) and our
H1N1 “canonical information” page. There were points where we were
updating these pages several times a day and when school closing
decisions were happening on a rolling basis, so it was important for
everyone to realize that we were updating very frequently.

We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel – we didn’t have the time, expertise, or desire to be the Health Department
– so we asked them to keep their URLs stable and we linked out to their
key FAQs about public and personal health related to H1N1.

Finally, I dedicated a large portion of my time to fielding online
inquiries from concerned parents and citizens. These came in through
our Twitter account and especially our Facebook page
– parents wanted to know why particular schools were not closing, why
others were, and how to protect their families. I did my best to get
them information specific to their local community; with over 1,500
schools, the answers could be vastly different for each parent.

I also used Twitter and Facebook to “correct the record” anytime
discussions veered away from the facts. Realistically, that’s one of
the biggest fears of government leaders when engaging online, so the
value of active engagement and participation cannot be overstated.

What We Learned

So what did we learn about government communications in a crisis? A few key things:

  • People rely on the web. Traffic to our H1N1 pages spiked
    and rose each day as we were dealing with H1N1. People were visiting
    multiple times a day and wanted the latest information.
  • Keep it simple and set expectations.
    Once people knew to expect the most up-to-date information from
    official sites, it was clear that the sensationalist feedback
    loop the media uses was damaged.
  • Engage, don’t just release.
    When people have questions, provide answers. It’s not just about press
    releases and blanket statements; people can draw lessons from specific
    information you provide. For instance, if I explained to one parent why
    we didn’t close a particular school, other parents understood better
    the broad criteria that had already been explained.
  • Your community reinforces itself.
    If you’re not there, someone else takes control. If we had not engaged
    on H1N1, I suspect that the public’s reaction would have been more
    severe. Clearly we would have done *something*, but it was about taking
    measured but meaningful steps – doing the *right* something – that
    helped everyone keep their wits about them and kept a limited physical
    outbreak from becoming a psychological crisis.

What about you? Have you been in the middle of a public crisis where online communications played a key role?

Palmer is the former Director of Web Communications for the New York
City Department of Education.

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