Friday, June 12, 2009

TOUCHDOWN: WHO DEFINES WHAT

Communications can be both liberated and constrained by language and the meaning of words. Adding to the fire, certain words take on unintended inferences – often as a result of their use in pop culture. It is important to recognize what problems can arise from language and/or understanding before making announcements and developing a plan to deal with that issue up front. Such is the case with the word “pandemic.” Though all it really means is “widespread,” when we hear it and we tend to think of some apocalyptic plague with scenes right out of a movie. The World Health Organization (WHO) faced this as the H1N1 influenza virus, spread around from country to country. When making the declaration that H1N1 was now at pandemic levels WHO spokesperson Gregory Hartl was very clear early on as to what this meant. “[The declaration] doesn’t mean anything concerning severity, it is concerning geographic spread. Pandemic means global, but it doesn’t have any connotation of severity or mildness.” With all the chatter about a looming pandemic it was critical for WHO to lay down a common base of understanding as to what this all means so as not to incite panic or undue fear. Making the communication of this message even stronger was the consistency of what was being said. WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan stressed that the pandemic alert-level "reflects the spread of the virus into various regions of the world, not the severity of the influenza." By providing a consistent explanation, WHO has established a foundation based on common understanding. In doing so it has eased the minds of the public who previously may not have understood what was being declared. With the foundation in place WHO can better focus its communications towards "next steps" such as monitoring the disease, assessing risks and assisting governments to find solutions.

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