Posted: February 2007
This page is categorized as:   link to Pandemic and Other Infectious Diseases index

Additional Dialogue:

“What do I think about the controversy in
the pandemic prep community about
my role and my integrity?”

Read the start of this dialogue in the Guestbook.

Can I be a spokesperson on behalf of pandemic preparedness?

field:Concerned citizen
date:February 9, 2007
location:New York City, NY


You said in your response – which I appreciated you made:

“In general, I am a paid professional. Ironically – considering the criticisms from some writers on the flu blogs – pandemic preparedness is a partial exception. It is a personal cause both for me and for my wife and colleague Jody Lanard. Most of our pandemic work is pro bono or very low-budget.”

Okay, you are a risk communicator. And good at what you do. There is a client very much in need of your services “pro bono.” It is the general population of the planet. We desperately need someone who can communicate the risk of H5N1 clearly and truthfully, acknowledging all of the facts about H5N1, as they really are.

We here on the flu boards have been following H5N1 for years, and have been dissecting and discussing every bit of news, every medical report, research papers, government news releases, local native language newspapers, eyewitness reports. We have explored and hashed out virtually every area of preparation for the pandemic and posted the entire experience and all individual and collective work online – for free.

We have tried over and over to inform the general public about what they will need to do to live through a severe H5N1 pandemic. We have called for the release of H5N1 DNA sequences from the protected databases so researchers around the world can figure out how to create an effective and safe pre-pandemic vaccine. We have not yet been successful.

We are in need of your services, to communicate the risks of a severe H5N1 pandemic to the general public.

peter responds:

I appreciate your invitation to do my part to help the world get ready for a pandemic, and for the possibility that it may be severe. That is what I’m trying to do.

There are two key differences between what I’m doing and what I think you probably want me to do.

The first key difference is that I don’t usually talk about pandemics. I talk about talking about pandemics. That is, you’re inviting me to become a spokesperson for the pandemic prep community, whereas I think I can contribute most as a risk communication professional. So I consult for government agencies, corporations, university centers, and others on strategies of pre-pandemic and pandemic communication. And I give conference presentations and seminars on strategies of pre-pandemic and pandemic communication. And for people who aren’t likely to hire me as a consultant or go to conferences or seminars, I write it all up and post it on this website, where it’s available without charge.

That’s what I try to contribute as a professional, an expert in risk communication. Of course as a citizen I do what we all do: harangue my friends and colleagues with information about pandemics and pandemic preparedness. I can’t tell you how often my lunches with clients turn into mini-lectures on how everybody at the table should go get a scrip for Tamiflu. But when I’m functioning as a professional, my topic is pandemic communication, not pandemics.

And when I do talk about pandemics, I’m not sure everything I say is what you’d want me to say. That’s the other key difference. I think my flu-blog critics and I are closer in our views about pandemic preparedness than they think we are. We both want to persuade the public to do more to prepare. To achieve that goal, we are both willing to frighten people. And we both want governments to do more than they are doing. But misunderstandings aside, there are also real differences.

For example, I see a severe pandemic as a high-magnitude, low-probability risk. Pandemics are inevitable, but severe ones are rare. Because severe pandemics are so horrific and because H5N1 looks so threatening, I think preparing for a severe pandemic makes sense even though I’m not convinced a severe pandemic is likely – in the same way I think buying fire insurance makes sense without believing my home is likely to burn. By contrast, some of my critics believe a severe pandemic is extremely likely, and believe anyone who says otherwise is hiding the seriousness of the problem.

Another example: I don’t see WHO, CDC, HHS, or government in general as the enemy. I have lots of criticisms of much that they have done (and much that they have failed to do), but I credit them with generally good intentions even when I think they lack understanding or courage or initiative or candor. You can’t be a consultant if you see the organizations you might be able to help as your enemy. Some of my critics do see government as the enemy, and strenuously disapprove of anyone who is willing to work with government. (The same goes for corporations, of course – in spades.)

As I see the world, differences like these are a source of strength, even though they sometimes cause painful disagreements. Diverse ecosystems are more resilient than monocultures. We will need all the resilience and diversity we can muster to prepare ourselves for a potentially severe pandemic, to persuade our neighbors to do likewise, and to get through one if and when it arrives. It is very clear to me that the online pandemic prep community is a huge source of strength. In a different way, I think I’m helping too.

If you ever have a question about how best to present your views on pandemic preparedness, and you think a risk communication professional might help, I hope you will look at this website. And if you can’t find a useful answer, I hope you will write again and ask me what I recommend.

The roles of radicals and reformers in the ecosystem of change

date:February 14, 2007
location:New Jersey, U.S.


I have read both your site and your comments with interest regarding the controversy raised by the recent USA Today article.

I hope that you have followed the thread in question on our site beyond the post that drew your attention to see that we value both discussion and the truth on any given issue. While we are not entirely sure that the PTB are entirely transparent, we are not into rampant PTB bashing either. Knee-jerk reactions are frowned upon and I hope that the thread continued to your satisfaction regarding the discussion in respect to you and your work.

You might not have placed a “word in season” within that thread yourself, had you? ;)

In any case, whether yourself or another, it was welcome, as are all challenges of hearsay on our site. If that member had not placed the question, Admin would have when they came to it. We try not to allow statements of “fact” without an associated link to support it, as you will find if you check the rest of the site.

peter responds:

I haven’t posted on the thread about me. I decided some time ago to avoid posting to flu blogs under my own name, and never to do so under a nom-de-flu. I’m not sure why I made these decisions – maybe to keep myself focused on risk communication rather than the substance of pandemics; maybe to keep myself focused on my own website. I may change my mind at some point. But for now I’m a lurker.

Inevitably, I have done more lurking than usual over the past week, while my own behavior was under discussion. And I didn’t fail to notice that PlanForPandemic has found a good balance: open to opinions you don’t share, but quick to moderate if they lack documentation. And of course discussion boards that manage to remain diverse tend to be self-correcting, even when the moderators are out having a life.

Even discussion boards that don’t remain diverse and aren’t self-correcting (in my view) make an important contribution. I am reminded of something I learned in the sixties:  It’s too much to expect revolutionaries to respect what reformers are doing, but reformers need to remember the value of revolutionaries. The Black Panthers made Martin Luther King effective. My clients let me push them toward moderate change largely because there are outsiders demanding immoderate (that is, more fundamental) change.

By the way, I received a very gracious offline email from the PFP poster I had referenced, apologizing for the attribution error.

john responds:

Interestingly, your thread continues to be one of the more popular on the site.

I found your comment regarding the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King very interesting, as in a lot of ways it reflects not only the flu board community in relation to each other, but also the experience we have been having within our own community. The hardest thing we have found about running the forum is trying to allow open dialogue, yet setting reasonable limits as to where that dialogue may go or how far off-topic we will allow. It often comes up, either with the members or between the members and mgmt.

I would like, with your permission, to add your last paragraph within that thread as a commentary on the value of both “camps” and the working dynamic. The “PTB should tell all” camp and the “PTB should pace the message” camp are always at odds. As are the “flubies need to be more analytical” and the “flubies need to be more emotional” camps. Neither seems to acknowledge either the value of the other camp or the fact that the other camp cannot be shut down: Both will always exist.

Copyright © 2007 by Peter M. Sandman

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