Monday, November 2, 2009

How to Screw Up A Vaccination Campaign in 12 Easy Steps

After months of conjecture and baffling discourse, H1N1 panic has gripped the North American population. And our governments have started rolling out an official innoculation campaign. To say that this campaign, and the clinics that kickstarted it, got off to a bumpy start is a gross understatement. Unmitigated disaster would be a more appropriate way to describe the chaos that characterized the first few days of Toronto's vaccination efforts, brought to you by the good people at Toronto Public Health. Note: I'm referring here to the management who organized the clinics, not the nurses and security guards who have been run off their feet and by all accounts, remained cheerful in the face of adversity.

As a PR agency, we produce an average of ten to twelve events per year. These range from intimate dinners for 20 to public events where we expect hundreds. Although every event is unique, the steps involved in pulling off a seemingly flawless event (there's no such thing as a truly flawless one) are the same and involve a lot of people working behind the scenes against a detailed critical path to ensure success. And, although granted, we're not trying to vaccinate a paranoid public, we face our share of setbacks - caterers who lose our paperwork, hotels which double-book our rooms, guest speakers who cancel at the last minute...well you get the idea. That's what contingency planning is for.

In observing how Toronto Public Health has executed the H1N1 vaccination campaign, it appears that management threw out, or decided to ignore, the most basic principles of event planning. If you're interested in organizing a disastrous event, following this twelve-step process will put you on the path to catastrophe.

1. Take your time - Even if you are briefed about the need for a potential event eight months ahead of time, make sure you don't do anything until a week or two before event day. That's just wasted time. If possible, right smack in the middle of the critical period when you need to confirm dates and product availabilities, go on strike for oh, six or seven weeks. During this time, make it illegal for anyone to work on the project.

2. Broaden your guest list - Don't make a list of your preferred guests. Rather, invite everyone on the planet. Take out a series of full-page advertisements in local newspapers to make sure that everyone knows they're invited to attend. For good measure, throw in some warnings about the dire consequences of not showing up.

3. Order limited quantities of everything - Even though you've done your best to ensure everyone in town will attend your event, make the assumption the vast majority will not show up. Order only enough product for a fraction of your guests. Same goes for things that will make the event go smoothly - chairs, pens, clipboards and food. If anyone brings up the words "contingency planning" remove them from the committee.

4. Confirm nothing in advance - You had one phone call months ago with your vaccine supplier and they said you would get a million doses. Now that your event is upon you, there's no need to call and double-check that it's still a go. People always do what they say they're going to do right?

5. Don't hire professionals - Sure, you work in a city with countless experienced event planners but you don't need to hire one of those people to help you. I mean, how hard can it be to organize a few thousand pregnant women, sickly citizens and fractious, bored toddlers.

6. Take the road less travelled - Sit down as a group and think about all the ways you could simplify your campaign roll-out. Ask yourself questions like: Is there any place in our society where large groups of children congregate during the day? or, If only there was a qualified health professional who pregnant women saw on a monthly basis. Decide that there's no such thing and the only way is for you to set up your own clinics.

8. Deliver mixed messages - At the start of your event, divide event staff into ten even groups. Give each group a completely different set of answers to key questions. For example: tell some nurses that kids five and under are eligible for the vaccination and tell others that it's only kids six months to four. Sit back and watch as the hilarity ensues.

9. Don't put any kind of system in place - Despite what centuries of history have taught us about what happens when you get large groups of people together, assume that only those who are eligible will show up, they will self-organize, form an orderly line, and not attempt to hold places in line for other family members. Ignore even the most rudimentary methods of crowd control - a roll of drink tickets or a series of staunchons. You won't need them.

10. Trim your guest list at the last minute - Two days before your event, decide that 90 per cent of the people you have invited are no longer welcome. Make no apologies and offer no assurances about when they will be reinvited.

11. Make sure it's convenient - When planning the event, think about what would be the most convenient time and place for you to hold it. Base this decision on things like the hours you normally like to work, any plans you might have for the evening. Resist the urge to consider things like the convenience of your guests. We don't want to give them too much control.

12. Deny, deny, deny - When the angry mob turns on you, deny that your complete inability to plan had anything to do with the disaster. Wherever possible, blame your suppliers, staff, and other stakeholders.


  1. I have so wanted to write a post about this very thing, but you've done it so well that all I have to do is RT you and link to your blog. Hope you don't mind. Brilliant PR analysis of event mis-planning. (I'm not even in PR and I know this!)

  2. Thanks for the support Denise. No event-planning experience is required to disect this fiasco. Anyone who has ever planned a wedding, or even a toddler's birthday party would see the flaws in this plan. Hopefully they learn from their mistakes.

  3. It's a relief to read someone articulating the nuttiness of this whole campaign. Thanks for putting it out there.

  4. Thanks Heidi,

    Too bad no one from public health is listening.

  5. Great post, Louise. Hiring PR pros might have helped if the various leaders running the show were capable of listening to advice. Given the apparent lack of communication between the city, province, feds, etc., I'm not sure what difference external counsel could make.

  6. As soon as Ottawa said they were handing out wrist bands for crowd control I knew immediately that the scams would start. Unless they were attached to the person's (victim's) wrist at point of distribution, people would ask for numerous bands for their "extended" family who are all, no doubt, on the priority list.

    I also knew that people would soon start scalping wrist bands. All of that happened.

    And then the gentle organizers publicly admitted that they weren't turning away people who weren't in the priority group. So guess what happened? Yup, everybody and their dog showed up resulting in another public announcement that they would turn away those people.

    Sigh. I know they're doing a tough job under pressure, but perhaps getting a professional event organizer's detached view on the plans would have been worth their time.