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Scholars examine effectiveness of CDC zombie preparedness campaign

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As far as pop culture goes, it is hard to beat the current zombie upsurge; from TV drama like ‘The Walking Dead’ to movies such as ‘Resident Evil’, the devilish figures have invaded public consciousness. They are apparently popular in public relations, too, judging by the number of campaigns using zombie-related humor to generate buzz on social media platforms. But how successful are these PR strategies in the context of risk communication? A new study published in the National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research looks deep into this matter, and reveals the match between social media and humor may not be made in heaven, after all.

Authored by Julia Daisy Fraustino and Liang Ma, the study presents an in-depth analysis of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) “zombie apocalypse” all-disaster-preparedness campaign, and uncovers the benefits and the pitfalls of using social media and pop culture-referencing humor in the context of crisis communication.

Launched on social media in May 2011, the ‘Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse’ campaign was aimed at engaging the U.S. public with the tactics needed to best survive a zombie attack–the idea being that withstanding a zombie attack will prepare people for any emergency. While the stunt was unquestionably successful, whether it encouraged people to take preparedness actions was less clear. “Social media facilitate communication” and interactions, especially in times of crisis, explains the team leading the research, but when humor is thrown into the mix, things become ambiguous.

“Light-heartedness reduces…critical thinking,” increasing the tendency to accept communication content, and comical messages can “trivialize the perceived seriousness of a topic,” weakening people’s intention to safeguard themselves, adds the team. To further investigate the matter, the academics employed three distinct research methods, including a phone interview with a CDC zombie-campaign manager and an in-depth analysis of marketing materials including key evaluation metrics, both designed to allow the CDC to ascertain the success of the apocalypse campaign.

Also, an online field experiment was carried out to establish the effects of medium form (social media vs. traditional) and message form (humorous vs. non- humorous) on recipients; to this end, 232 college students were randomly exposed to four adaptations of the original apocalypse campaign–a blog, a newsletter, and a comic as well as serious version of the zombie message–and then were asked to rank their ‘readiness to act’ by completing a questionnaire.

Results showed campaign goals had been achieved from the CDC’s viewpoint, and the medium form had no impact on the behavior of the observed sample. However it was confirmed that a “tongue in cheek stance towards disaster communication trivializes perceived importance,” as evidenced by the students who were shown the comical version of the zombie message manifesting weaker intentions to take protective action. So, while humorous strategies can launch campaign messages into the spotlight, because of significant consequences on audiences’ behavior and well-being, more caution and attention are needed from professionals using social media and humor in a risk communication context.

Read the full article online:http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/10.1080/00909882.2015.1019544

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