- UK public health bodies must understand digital environment -

There’s nothing like a dose of global panic to push governments onto the back foot. The British Government continues to fight fires on all fronts whilst also striving to engage with the country through an ever changing media landscape. Its attempts to embrace social media may have been criticised, but they at least showed a willingness to adopt new communications tools. Unfortunately, as the current swine flu hysteria has demonstrated, understanding the digital environment and how best to utilise its speed and reach is not as simple as it seems.

As people around the world began to believe what they were reading – the world will collapse and all of humanity will die thanks to the dreaded swine flu – the power of digital communications came to the fore, once again. For the first time we were able to track the development of a potential pandemic, in a connected world and through the eyes of a consumer.

Given that the Internet is more frequently consulted for health information than any other source, including medical practitioners, it is surprisingly that the British Government did not make the digital platform the heart of its swine flu communications strategy.

Instead, the government resorted to traditional methods: hundreds of thousands of pamphlets would be dropped through letterboxes across Britain over the coming weeks. The artwork would form the basis of the government’s advertising campaign, with TV, radio and press adverts warning consumers to “Catch it, kill it, bin it”. Catchy indeed, but was it quick enough? While the government’s response wasn’t solely limited to offline communications platforms, it certainly focused the majority of its efforts down a traditional path.

Blue Latitude monitored the online environment throughout the first week of swine flu hysteria through the eyes of a concerned UK citizen, with quite frightening results.

Government portal Direct.gov.uk made up for a lack of visibility in organic search results by bidding against paid Google search terms to appear at the top of the first page of results. As the week started, however, this activity found them often less visible in paid results than vendors of traditional Chinese medicine.

By the end of the week, this picture was further confused by Direct.gov.uk bidding for keywords in competition with NHS.uk – a misdirection of effort further compounded by the varying levels of quality in information provided by the two resources.

Doing it the American Way
The United States Centre for Disease Control recognised that its CDC.gov site would rank highly in organic listings (as one of the few resources to contain authoritative information on the H1N1 virus before the Mexican outbreak was reported), so US authorities made sure that their information could be disseminated as widely as possible. Rather than rely solely on paid-for search terms, a simple widget on the CDC homepage allowed other site owners (including Whitehouse.gov) to easily embed links to all relevant information on their own pages with no effort required to develop new site content, making best efforts to ensure that the public was provided with a single authoritative source.

Additionally, the CDC provided its own dedicated Twitter feed for official news updates, and urged users to ‘retweet’ these official statements to their own followers. This at least went some small way to diluting the speculative and misguided nature of the 10, 000+ tweets an hour on the Twitter #swineflu tag.

What Should The Government Have Done?
In the face of this unprecedented volume of available information, how can public information providers ensure that the right messages are cutting through the noise of rising concern and the rapid redistribution of rumour and theory?

Fred Basset, director of strategy at Blue Latitude explains:

“The propensity for people to self-diagnose, self-medicate or just create sheer panic is greater than ever, thanks to the vastness of medical information available online and the surprisingly poor governmental understanding of how consumers interact with digital channels.

“This lack of understanding of the digital environment can make organisations look ill-prepared and out of touch, whilst making the job of finding the correct information and calming consumer fears even more difficult.”

The map attached shows the online environment ‘through the eyes’ of users seeking the most relevant and authoritative information around the pandemic on April 28th. As can be seen, the most visible presence is that of Wikipedia – no one’s idea of a definitively trusted source for emerging health topics. But it shows that a high presence for this kind of ‘official’ information is critical for any communications campaign.

Basset concludes:

“By understanding the likelihood of users finding your content across a variety of scenarios in the volatile information system that is the web, it is possible to develop partnerships and placement strategies which can mitigate the need to knee-jerk into paid search advertising in the absence of a properly planned approach.

“Oorganisations need to drastically improve the way they use online channels with which to communicate to the public in times of crisis. If they don’t, they’ll continue to waste money with unnecessary, inadequate and time-consuming information that achieves little. This is a lesson not just for the UK Government, but for organisations in all industries hoping to increase awareness of their brand, business, services or products.”

- ENDS -

Notes to Editors:
Visuals demonstrating The Environment Map are available for download from

For further information please contact:

Sophie Berger
Marketing Manager
Blue Latitude
2-6 Northburgh Street
London, EC1V 0AY T: +44 020 3328 1898
M: +44 07971 551 875

About Blue Latitude:
Blue Latitude is an interactive business and marketing consultancy. As digital channels mature and become more complex, Blue Latitude helps its clients understand and navigate an increasingly competitive environment, taking a customer-centric approach to the digital world. Rigorous data analysis underpins all its work, with a set of proprietary tools and practical services that improve clients' efforts to:
• Reach and convert more prospects;
• Build greater customer loyalty; and
• Lay foundations for sustained growth.

Founded in 2002, Blue Latitude has more than 20 highly experienced, specialist consultants, working globally to deliver impartial and actionable strategy. Blue Latitude works across various sectors including health, financial and entertainment, helping global organisations change their thinking and behaviours to exploit digital platforms, improve business performance and gain competitive advantage.


Published on: 12:39PM on 7th May 2009