Swine flu is making us sick. Not the virus, just the overwhelming media frenzy that is scaring the pants off everyone. It would be one thing if pigs were actually flying, but the reality is that so far, this appears to be a new but milder strain of the seasonal influenza virus, which causes 36,000 deaths every year in the U.S. To put that number in perspective, to date we've seen 26 deaths in Mexico and only 35 of the 286 confirmed cases in the U.S. have resulted in hospitalization. Not exactly cause for widespread panic.

It seems that what we have here is a failure to communicate, or at least a failure to coordinate clear, consistent and factual messages. The media, seeing a great opportunity to jump to conclusions, sensationalizes the flu hoping for news of deaths or at least a few school closings and people on airplanes in surgical masks. Public health officials are sending mixed messages, one day warning us about a scary pandemic and conjuring images of the Black Plague, and the next day reassuring us that it is not as bad as we thought. One day we should not get on a plane and the next day we should not overreact. One day it's off with the pigs' heads and the next day it's not even called swine flu anymore.

No wonder we are all confused. It's situations like this that make PR people crazy. We'd like to sit everyone down, have them all take a deep breath, find out exactly what the facts are and then prepare a few clear consistent messages for a few key spokespeople so that each expert speaks to their area of expertise in one collective, level-headed voice.

When a crisis happens it breeds chaos. It is natural for people to speak before they know the facts or to panic if there is too much uncertainty. Rumors can spread and the damage can grow worse by the minute. But the only way to put out the fire is to be deliberate, disciplined and organized. Follow the plan and stick to the rules. Be compassionate. Do not speculate. Maintain your composure. Communicate clearly, consistently, factually and transparently.

No doubt, public health officials, media and PR pros will learn a lot from this crisis once it finally resolves. We will look back and examine what we did right and what went terribly wrong. It will be a good crisis communications case study. But for now we must endure weeks and months of rumor, speculation and recrimination, while the media camps out at schools and hospitals, following every parent with a sick child, hoping for some drama.

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