In late 2009, after steering our country through the H1N1 pandemic as Acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Richard Besser took on a new role as Chief Health and Medical Editor at ABC News. He transitioned from leading the nation’s premier public health agency to reporting critical health issues on the morning and evening news. Despite his new title, his top priority is still the protection of America’s health.
Last month I had the pleasure of hosting my former colleague and predecessor as Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (then Coordinating Office for Terrorism Prevention and Emergency Response) at CDC for a presentation to a standing-room-only crowd. Dr. Besser brought keen insights gained from perspectives in front of and behind the camera.
Dr. Besser worked on issues of global and national significance throughout his career in public health. Now, he tells stories, informing the American public on a range of topics from chronic conditions to potential pandemics. Last month, for example, Dr. Besser was again at the forefront of covering an emerging outbreak, and he faced a difficult challenge:
- Catch the interest of his audience
- Educate them about the emerging public health threat posed by H7N9 Avian Influenza
- Convey the relevance of a complicated virus on the other side of the world
- Refrain from inciting panic
- Accomplish all of this in under two minutes
A saturated news environment demands brevity. Dr. Besser explained that 35 minutes, which previously was a typical briefing for him, now represents 20 different stories. Although my office does not operate under the same constraints, we can learn a lot from his approach to communicating complex information quickly and effectively.
In his remarks, Dr. Besser noted that public health does not always think about communication as part of our toolbox in protecting the public’s health. We must embrace active communication and examine the methods we use to reach different audiences. Dr. Besser connects with his viewers though the creation of character-driven journeys, which convey health information throughout a narrative arc. The audience empathizes with individuals in his pieces, and they receive their health information through a human connection with the protagonists. This is a very different form of communication than reading official guidance documents.
At PHPR, we seek to improve communication with our broad range of audiences, including:
- The American public
- Our traditional public health sector partners
- New private sector partners
Our blogs tell the personal side of preparedness and response and a series of infographics connects the public and prepares them for specific hazards. As Dr. Besser said, we need to think about the questions that our neighbors ask and communicate in a conversational tone to reach a broad audience.
We are launching a new website to engage a wide spectrum of current and potential partners in the nongovernmental and private sectors. This website, which will go live later this month, will communicate with the preparedness and response community and keep our partners current on our latest initiatives.
Finally, our Emergency Operations Center simultaneously responded to three public health events this month: H7N9 Avian Influenza, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and global polio eradication. CDC is keeping the public, health practitioners, and other professionals up to date via a range of communication channels including our website, press briefings, and travel notices.
Dr. Besser knows the importance of communicating with a range of stakeholders from his tenure overseeing the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, and he took those lessons with him to his new role on your TV screen. We’re fortunate to learn from him as we continue to refine our own communication efforts to reach a host of audiences in order to protect the Nation’s health security.
Ali S. Khan, MD MPH
Assistant Surgeon General (retired) & Director
Office of Public Health Preparedness & Response
DHHS/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Public Health Matters
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Rd
Atlanta, GA 30333
TTY: (888) 232-6348