On CDCs Zombie Apocalypse and Why Your Communications Campaigns Stink

The CDC made a big splash in the last week or so with the publication of a post on zombie preparedness on one of their blogs.

Sober, staid government agency making a culturally-relevant, well-intentioned joke? Does not compute.

Seriously, when is the last time the CDC was the subject of multiple non-funding-related stories in the Wall Street Journal? H1N1? Vaccines and autism and liability? Never for a good reason, that’s for sure.

Why the change? Well, the ridiculous zombie angle is probably why, but I argue that it’s an informative difference. (Though public health departments have never gone wrong with a bit of zombie-related humor before, see Oregon Public Health here.) People are tired of the same old dry, boring, finger-wagging communications that are increasingly anachronistic in today’s media-saturated world. Media consumers are too savvy, too busy, to be shamed into healthy behaviors (the latest research shows these types of ads, though satisfying to public health planners frustrated by decades of being ignored, may do more harm than good).

This campaign is instructive for public health educators all over because it shows that being culturally-relevant and understanding of what’s popular and being consumed in the public (see the large number of zombie movies and TV shows that have done exceedingly well in the last decade) can be infused with public health messaging to great effect. No one can say that the messages contained within the post are wrong, or could be clearer; it’s just that they’ve got this zombie wrapping.

And folks, that makes all the difference. Doctors with coats that match the shade of their hair wagging fingers begone!

And then there’s this great line in one of the Wall Street Journal articles:

Best of all for Khan, who admits to posting the blog without approval from government higher-ups: his real message seems to be getting through.

Not that I would EVER advocate for health educators going rogue, it makes a certain subtle point that this is the most quickly read (lots of readers in a short amount of time) article on CDC’s website. More than life-threatening outbreaks, more than peanut butter recalls, so many hits that it crashed the server. Mid-week. A public health server. From something other than age and lack of use.

Is there something correlation between that level of success and not running this by the same people who’ve been crafting public health messages for the last thirty years? Like I said, I would NEVER advocate that. And my Coast Guard instructors last week didn’t talk about guerilla marketing at all, either.

And if you can’t go around them, there’s always the ROI argument:

Fortunately, the zombie apocalypse preparedness campaign cost “zero,” Khan says — or rather, no more than it costs to come up with a regular public health blog post.

Which I think hints at another reason why most public health messaging campaigns fail.

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2 thoughts on “On CDCs Zombie Apocalypse and Why Your Communications Campaigns Stink

  1. Being in government, I can certainly understand the point being made by Jim. Innovation in government communications is very hard to achieve because of the risk-adverse attitude of senior government executives and elected officials.It’s the old check box approach … where process is more important than results. It goes along these lines “… we issued a news release! … But, no one read it! Let’s send out another one ! ….Can be frustrating but I believe that societal changes brought about by social media are going to pressure official agencies everywhere to really connect with their stakeholders or risk becoming even more irrelevant.

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