Talking Flu and Other Crises with the CDC

Posted: June 8, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: June 11, 2009 at 4:13 pm

By Marjorie Musick

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Tom Harkin Global Communications Center in Atlanta. Photo by James Gathany, CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Tom Harkin Global Communications Center in Atlanta. Photo by James Gathany, CDC

Public information officers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have a weighty responsibility: They must deliver to the public facts about infectious disease outbreaks—such as the recent H1N1 flu—and other public health crises in a way that induces appropriate action.

Supporting them in this task since 2007, George Mason University’s Center for Health and Risk Communication (CHRC) has helped these messengers take their health communication skills to the next level.

As part of a series of training contracts between Mason and the CDC, Communication Department faculty members travel to the CDC’s campus in Atlanta several times each year to present seminars on health literacy, media advocacy, campaign design, risk communication and the increasingly powerful applications of social marketing.

They also review the use of press conferences and interviews with media representatives, coupled with newer multimedia campaigns and social media.

Gary Kreps. Creative Services photo

Gary Kreps. Creative Services photo

According to Gary Kreps, director of the CHRC and professor and chair of Mason’s Department of Communication, the role of the public information officer is never more important than during a public health crisis such as the H1N1 flu outbreak.

“Swine flu was a major problem and resulted in many new communication assignments for the CDC’s staff,” Kreps says.

As the principal investigator on the training contracts with the CDC, Kreps has seen firsthand the benefits that these targeted one-, two-, and three-day training sessions can have on developing strategic public health campaigns in response to serious health threats and emergencies.

“To help these public health officials through this process, we related a lot of our training applications to the real-world examples of swine flu, anthrax, Hurricane Katrina and other complex health threats,” he says.

“It is important for public health officials to not only alert the public to the health threat, but also to present clear information about what can be done to prevent and respond to resulting health problems. Understanding how best to use the communication tools at their disposal is integral to helping public health officials effectively communicate to a panicked public,” says Kreps.

Several CHRC faculty affiliates have joined Kreps in leading the training sessions: Melinda Villagran, associate professor of communication; Carl Botan, professor of communication; Kathy Rowan, professor of communication; and Xiaoquan Zhao, assistant professor of communication.

With multiple organizations competing for the chance to teach these seminars, what gave Mason the edge? Kreps, the former founding chief of the National Cancer Institute’s Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch, credits the expertise of the CHRC faculty and the pioneering reputation of the department’s health communications degree programs.

“I think that we were chosen because we have a lot of very well known faculty to teach these training programs—all of whom have doctoral degrees and are experienced teachers in the topics of interest to the CDC,” says Kreps.

“The fact that Mason offers well-respected master’s and PhD programs in health and strategic communication was also a plus,” he adds.

“This has been a very good opportunity for us to educate federal public health officials, to prepare these officials to use strategic health communication to promote public health and well-being and to build cooperative relationships with the CDC.”

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