In 2009 we planned for an influenza pandemic. I was in the room. I recorded it in a podcast

I have heard the ridiculous ‘plandemic‘ theory,  including one about a virus outbreak appearing in an election year. Or, that the US didn’t see this coming.


Well, in 2009, at ASU, I worked for an outfit that ran a 2-day pandemic planning exercise, with realistic scenarios. Elections were over. The participants were county health officials, school superintendents, infectious disease specialists.  People who would be called upon to make the tough calls, to safeguard populations, and schools.  Arizona State University’s WP Carey school of business was involved, as was the School of Health Policy and Management. But this was not what researchers typically call a ‘table-top exercise.’ This was a bit more realistic.

The location of this exercise was the Decision Theater – a visualization space that has a war room ambiance. (Fun fact: Decision Theater was used to movie as exactly that , where scientists wrestle with how to avert a catastrophe when an asteroid was heading to earth.)

Participants were presented with news reports, and data sets of unexpected scenarios: a virus entering the country through returning soldiers, outbreaks spreading to cities, and small towns, children infected etc. On the large screens in the Theater (also known as the ‘Drum’) our team created simulated news reports for each potential crisis point. The 2009 exercise, a follow up to the one in 2008,  was to be a test of how decisions would be made in an unfolding crisis.

Weeks before, our videographer, Dustin Hampton and I set up and recorded ‘news’ reporters, and edited story-lines that would track with the mathematical models that would be presented to the participants.  In one sense it was a fun exercise, even though the H1N1 Flu was a concern in some parts of the world.

I was in the room, and we were behind the scenes making the event look realistic. Cameras rolled, make-shift media were putting pressure on people to quarantine people, students, and shut down schools. I had not realized this but I had created two podcasts of the event, interviewing attendees.  They are a peek into the situation I describe.

This is not the only exercise of its kind that preempted the current pandemic. In May 2018 Johns Hopkins University ran a similar table-top exercise, that put people in a room to respond to realistic reports of a viral outbreak Watch the video below. It’s eerily similar. Even the date of the fictitious outbreak is so close, it shocked me when I watched it.

If you want more research into this, there’s a paper here:!

Below, is another interview we did with Dr. Robert Pahle who worked on another piece of software for pandemic preparedness.

POD Throughput Model from Decision Theater Network on Vimeo.

Faced with budget cuts, duct tape and cardboard box works!

Since it’s Friday, thought I’d share something far removed from the social media and marketing stuff you see here. Call it my glass-is-half-full story.

I work with people with an unusual skills at the Decision Theater. But how often do you find someone who could put together a home-made teleprompter? With nothing more than a cardboard box, a sheet of glass he pilfered from me, some buggy freeware, and a bit of duct tape, my colleague Dustin Hampton is ready to shoot a series of videos featuring simulated news reports.


The laptop makes the mirrored text scroll onto the flat screen monitor taped down at a 45-degree angle. It is then reflected up at the sheet of glass –on the other side of the camera you see here!

Yes, like everyone else in the state, the universities are facing budget cuts. But there’s work to be done. This project involves pandemic flu planning. I like to think of this as our way of not sitting back and waiting for the sun to rise.

(cross posting from LightBulb Moments)

Cabinet secretary: “I am not a professional blogger”

A cabinet secretary may not come across as your typical blogger, or PR person. But Mike Leavitt’s blog at the Department of Health and Human Services turns that stereotype on its head.

This morning, he was on a Kaiser Family webcast about why he blogs, how he finds time to do it (answer: sometimes on a stair-master in the gym.) Also how his organization looks at new media exercises like this. Some quotes:

  • “I speak my mind. I am just not reckless about it.”
  • “I am not a professional blogger … I have been taken under the wing of more seasoned bloggers.”
  • “information goes where people are, and public policy makers should do the same.”
  • “A secretary is the spokesperson. Too many HHS spokespersons could be a problem.”
  • “My blog is not a literary masterpiece –that is not my goal.”
  • “I choose the topic – not a reporter.”
  • “I choose the words – not a reporter.”

Leavitt was quizzed about moderated comments and the media reading his blog, and it was evident that he is much more interested in the unfiltered voice and format of the blog than being reduced to a sound bite, and being subject to the media filters. It reminded me of Sun Microsystems’ Jonathan Schwarz’s comment some years back that he decided to maintain his own blog because he was tired of being strained through the media filters.

Leavitt was a bit shaky on the audience question about whether he would promote his staffers to blog. (See quote above.) Which was odd for someone who embraces the democratized medium like this, and wants to hold on to the megaphone. That sounds like what a PR department would say.

I took it as a comment that suggests he is still thinking about this. Some blogger would/should take him under his/her wing on that one.

Communicating through chaos: What could a pandemic flu teach us

Very happy to be able to break the story about a pandemic flu exercise we conducted here at the Decision Theater at ASU.

It was an exercise that worked on several levels:

  • Strategic Planning
  • Testing Scenarios
  • Communicating with multiple groups
  • Testing a plan through systems dynamic model

I am in the Communications business, so I was keenly observing how different players interacted, assumed leadership positions, and communicated from within the ‘crisis.’

I was lucky to be the fly on the wall (the camera-toting fly, that is) so it got me thinking of the parallels there were for businesses. How do organizations communicate and act in a crisis? As in any marketing campaign or business crisis, the war room is staffed by team members who are are suddenly confronted with the need to operate without the usual props. They may have Blackberries, but the information is coming at them fast and furious through other channels. They may have strong opinions, but so too do the people across the table.

Then there was the interesting irony of some having too much information (mock TV news updates, threat levels, a web cam feed, fact sheets etc) on one side of the room, and others deprived of the usual sources of information (CNN, RSS feeds, radio etc) –all this according to plan. We hosted this event in two areas. Emergency Ops was situated in the ‘drum’ -the high-tech room with a 260-degree panoramic screen, laptops etc. Incident Command and the Executive Policy Group were situated in an adjacent conference room, tethered to the drum via a live camera feed and a land line. No cell phone communication was allowed between the rooms.

Communicators often face situations like this, albeit not in the same life-threatening context. How does a team of those representing PR, Marketing, Advertising, Web Design, HR, IT and Legal Affairs work in crisis mode, in a compressed time frame, when they barely talk to each other in normal life? We seldom act out scenarios, assuming bad things won’t happen to us. History tells us otherwise.

Unless we plan for these hypothetical ‘pandemic’ events we won’t really know. That’s the deeper meaning of strategic planning, isn’t it?