Walton, Laura Richardson; Seitz, Holli H.; & Ragsdale, Kathleen. (2012). Strategic use of YouTube during a national public health crisis: The CDC’s response to the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic. Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 1, article 3.

In mid-April 2009, a new strain of influenza (later termed the 2009 H1N1 flu) was identified in a 10-year-old California patient. Due to the rapid expansion in popularity of these online communication channels, social media specialists at the Center for Disease Control created a H1N1 community strategy for social media channels that would complement traditional media strategies. Although the social media plan would eventually involve a heavy presence on Facebook and Twitter, YouTube was used early in the CDC’s response to provide timely, accurate, and credible health messages via social media.

While the CDC continued to rely on traditional and more conventional communication tactics during this pandemic, this study illustrates the necessity of making vital public health messages accessible to the general public on YouTube. Indeed, one of the first 2009 H1N1 videos released by the CDC garnered 2.1 million views on YouTube, while all the CDC videos totaled 3 million views. Additionally, it emphasizes the importance of public health entities being willing to adapt to the changing nature of information dissemination in the face of innovative technologies and new media.


A case study approach was used to analyze 50 video productions from April 2009-August 2010 and relied on textual analysis to examine the CDC’s YouTube playlist created for the H1N1 pandemic. In addition, CDC documents specific to the H1N1 strategic planning and evaluation, news reports and other secondary sources were analyzed.

Key Findings

1)      The CDC’s message strategy in its YouTube productions was consistent throughout the campaign and also congruent to its three core values: Be right, be first and be credible.

2)      The CDC used an integrated communication approach to increase awareness about the pandemic. Traditional message tools (e.g., brochures, fliers, information hotlines, PSAs) were complemented by newer technologies (e.g., YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, e-cards) to increase reach of the CDC’s message.

3)      Increasing production value did not necessarily result in increased viewers on YouTube. Overall, motion graphics and cartoon productions did not receive as many views as the CDC’s purely informational videos. Users were seeking straightforward facts about the H1N1 epidemic, thus it is likely these more “flashy” and graphically-focused pieces were not as effective in dissemination of the information sought.

4)      An integrated communication approach allowed the CDC to use its communication tools across multiple platforms. Links to videos and other informational resources could be posted on the Facebook pages as well as the CDC’s various Twitter accounts, enabling the CDC to reach a diverse audience across multiple social media sites.

Implications for Practice

Based on the 3 million views of the CDC videos, individuals were interested in information relevant to the 2009 H1N1 epidemic. This suggests that YouTube should be used by health communicators to develop content appropriate for target audiences, but they should keep videos short and maximize production quality. Additionally, this case highlights the importance of public health entities being willing to adapt to the changing nature of information dissemination in the face of innovative technologies and new media. It is especially significant to note that information should be developed in various languages and videos can be produced to target specific minority, high-risk populations (e.g., Native Americans, Hispanics). Mid-campaign adaptations and additions can aid in organizations being diligent in understanding stakeholder responses as well as remaining flexible in communication messages and strategies.

Article Location

The full article is available for free at: http://cssc.web.unc.edu/cases/v1/art3

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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