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Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That’s what I said to some fellow communications professionals at a conference session on pandemic planning. No, not afraid of the avian flu, although that’s scary enough. Scared stiff at how much the effective handling of a pandemic will depend on communications.

Albright began pandemic planning almost a year ago, with a team, led by Samantha Wesner, nurse practitioner in the Gable Health Center, from public safety, human resources, academics, residential life, facilities, IT, food services and the business office. After a thorough education on N5H1 (the avian flu strain in question), best practices in planning and meeting with a representative of the Pennsylvania Department of Health,

we attacked the complex issues we will face in case of a global outbreak of avian flu or any other infectious disease. Plans for each area would be woven into a comprehensive institutional plan that we would test and vet to make sure we had covered all the bases.

We soon discovered we had opened Pandora’s Box. Every bullet on public safety’s list led to three new things to add to the communications plan. Housing’s concerns opened up whole new realms for facilities. The Health Center handed a full can of worms to academics and the business office. Limiting spread of infection, decision triggers for closing the College, operating with reduced staff, obtaining supplies, handling thousands of phone calls from concerned parents…into the hopper they went.

The issues buzzed around us and multiplied like gnats on a summer day. Albright’s tag line,“a different way of thinking,” our collaborative culture and interdisciplinary emphasis were quickly put to work. Everything is connected. No part of the College works in isolation.

The plan kept growing.

We did a tabletop exercise. We added more people to the team.

And after every meeting I’d sharpen my pencil and add to the communications plan, which grew like Topsy on steroids. Every item on another’s list created new communications needs, and the timetable kept moving up, earlier and earlier. Pretty soon the communications plan was twice as long as the longest department plan– students, parents, faculty and staff, visitors, the media, government, health agencies, web, e-mail, letters, every constituency and every contingency.

We are getting ready to put the College’s plan to a full-fledged drill to make sure it holds up under pressure. Avian flu may become a global threat. Or it won’t. But our team believes we have a plan that will serve the College and our students in any major emergency.

I’m still afraid of a pandemic and what it will take to handle communications. But I’m beginning to relax a little. I have a plan.

Barbara J. Marshall
Barbara J. Marshall
is associate vice president
of college relations
and marketing.

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