The New CDC 'Zombies' of Emergency Preparedness

The immense increase in the use of social media offers many new opportunities to educate the American people on emergency preparedness in general and to move agency messages to a broader target audience. Another result of the much expanded range of information outlets – primarily the Internet – is that the media itself often plays a backseat role while their message is being widely disseminated.

Because of the increase in new distribution channels, agencies that want to get an emergency preparedness message out to their constituents must carefully consider how to present that message. For many years, states have followed the federal lead and pressed the message of “self-reliance through preparedness” through sites such as, among others. Their collective message has been that everyone must take the time needed – now, not when it is too late – to prepare themselves and their families so that, during a future time of disaster, each household has enough supplies to survive for at least a few days without needing, or receiving, emergency assistance from public sources.

This preparedness message has reached millions of citizens across the nation and, without a doubt, many of those citizens have not only taken heed but also taken action. However, the omnipresent and continuing nature of the important public message has, unfortunately, reached the point where it now risks fading into the background noise of everyday life.

An Apocalyptic Vision of Survival – In a Properly Prosaic Way 

Enter “the Zombies” (so to speak). The Atlanta-based CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the busiest and most important agencies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), keeps its extensive website busy with a number of informative blogs. In mid-May, writer Ali S. Khan posted a guide to surviving what he called the “Zombie Apocalypse.” The terminology may sound trite – and/or sensational – but the Khan guidelines are in reality a very effective vehicle for this particular message – in large part, it seems, because of the attention-grabbing juxtaposition of the supposed topic, zombies, and the venue selected, a somewhat prosaic but also extremely formal federal website. Of course, the actual topic of “the zombie blog” is “preparedness.”

The message itself is the real priority, of course – but the selection of the media used is quite deliberate and should not be ignored. With and in large part because of the explosion of the “new media” – i.e., blogs, tweets, Facebook pages, and podcasts – responder agencies now have not only new opportunities to expand the distribution of their message but also a number of new challenges to consider. The main advantages provided by the blogs/tweets etc. are speed and ease. Unlike a traditional webpage, or a paper-and-ink publication, the new media can be posted and made available to the public within moments after the decision to publish has been made.

Distance & Documents; Opportunities & Objectives 

Another advantage provided, both literally and figuratively, by the new media is distance. Not the distance from the writer to the reader – although being instantly global is a definite advantage provided by the Internet – but the distance between the writer and the agency. Documents produced by an agency belong to that agency; they are or should be scientifically based; and they provide information that already has been reviewed and thoroughly “vetted.”

In other words, they are intended to be concise and accurate vehicles for information. And they are. CDC itself, to cite but one example, produces and periodically updates a long list of informational briefs on various diseases and a broad spectrum of other threats to the American body politic.

On the other hand, blogs are intended and usually considered to be opinion, for the most part, and for that reason, even though the information provided usually claims to be fact-based, readers do not have the same expectation of full and complete accuracy. This difference in perspective enables agencies to define other media products to fit their needs and objectives. Distance can be placed between the agency and certain types of information simply by selecting an outlet that has been carefully defined andentified as providing the distance usually desired.

CDC’s “Zombie Apocalypse” message, for example, has been re-tweeted, shared on Facebook, included in YouTube videos, reported on various newscasts, and emailed from one chat room to another. So, although all government agencies must be extremely careful when using what might seem to be tongue-in-cheek advertising to relay important information, the CDC certainly seems to have succeeded in using the new media now available to bring an important message back to life, and to the American people, in an unconventional way.


For additional information on the original Zombie Apocalypse blog, visit

Joseph Cahill
Joseph Cahill

Joseph Cahill is the director of medicolegal investigations for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He previously served as exercise and training coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and as emergency planner in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management. He also served for five years as citywide advanced life support (ALS) coordinator for the FDNY – Bureau of EMS. Before that, he was the department’s Division 6 ALS coordinator, covering the South Bronx and Harlem. He also served on the faculty of the Westchester County Community College’s paramedic program and has been a frequent guest lecturer for the U.S. Secret Service, the FDNY EMS Academy, and Montefiore Hospital.



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