Credit: PAHO/WHO

In 2009, the World Health Organization declared a new strain of influenza virus ̶ H1N1 ̶ a pandemic. There were fears – stoked in part by the media, Internet and government over-reaction – that the pandemic could be even deadlier than the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 that killed millions.

WHO recognized the urgent need to counter the rumors and provide the public with timely and accurate advice if panic was to be avoided and the virus contained.

Shortly after the outbreak in Mexico, Rain Barrel was asked by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) – WHO’s regional arm for the Americas – to serve as the facilitator and rapporteur of an Inter-agency Meeting on Strategic Communication for Pandemic Influenza in the Americas in Washington, D.C.

At that meeting, communication experts from across the UN system and a dozen countries updated an earlier Inter-Agency Communication Framework and agreed on steps that would strengthen the response by UN agencies, governments, NGOs and the media to the first pandemic of the 21st century.

In addition to preparing the agenda, selecting the speakers, facilitating the meeting and preparing the final report, Rain Barrel also successfully advocated for the adoption of communication strategies relying on grass-roots participation and social networks as a complement to traditional, top-down government- and expert-driven policies.