A Lesson in Reputation Management from the CDC in H1N1 Flu Vaccination

As the FDA struggles to re-furbish its image, highly tarnished during the last eight years, the CDC provides a lesson in reputation management in its response to the flu pandemic. 

By many accounts, trust in government is on the decline.  Regaining trust can be a painstaking matter, and involves the primary asset of any entity – the brand.  CDC has a good brand and has done an admirable job in communicating information around the seasonal flu and the H1N1 pandemic, holding regular briefings and providing clear messaging and a lot of resources on its Web site.  And then…. a mistake.  And not just a little mistake, a big mistake that stands to wipe out a lot of good communications work.  What was it?

There was a little inconsistency in the beginning, which is natural given a complex situation that is evolving quickly.  At first the CDC said that vaccine would be available in late October, but then it was changed to mid-October.  No big deal.  But then came the rub. 

In mid-September, CDC communicated that it would have 40 million doses of vaccine on order by the end of October.  While they didn't say they'd have 40 million doses by then, the media began reporting that the CDC targeted 40 million doses by that time.  That set up the expectation.

Then, the 40 million doses did not materialize and people began having a hard time finding ready vaccination and now the headlines are of an H1N1 flu vaccine shortage and there are news reports of people waiting in long lines, often not getting vaccinated.  

That is not the CDC's fault – they don't manufacture the vaccine, they order it.  But holding out an expectation of 40 million doses that didn't materialize doesn't make them look good.  That is the lesson in reputation management – don't make projections that will be perceived as a promise, when you in fact, have no control over the process.  You can get burned. 

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