informing the masses when to get their vaccines, where to go for the latest advisory, and, perhaps most important, how to prevent getting sick in the first place.
The organization, an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has become the go-to default for health officials and educators, as well as for an increasingly health-conscious citizenship.
The CDC’s website has become integral to these efforts, and the home page is as sterile and neat as a hospital lavatory. The CDC site keeps graphics to a minimum, placing emphasis not on visuals but on links to a seemingly bottomless repository of data on everything from diphtheria to DEET. Imagery is limited to the main Flash banner on the top of the page; subtle icons that represent each of the main categories; charts and graphs that illustrate statistical data; and the Image of the Week (which was, at the time of this writing, an ethereal blowup of lavender MRSA bacteria).
Driving the CDC’s efforts to achieve its Health Protection Goals (including public-health research and globalization) are its “strategic imperatives”: keeping people healthy at every stage of life; at work, play, and home; and from occupational, environmental, infectious, and terrorist threats. Key to these brand imperatives is information dissemination, and the site features a variety of ways in which you can have your disease and calamity data delivered.
In addition to scrolling through the site’s A-to-Z index (a truly comprehensive compendium, though I was disappointed I couldn’t find a link to “the dropsy”), visitors can sign up for e-mail updates, view podcasts, or subscribe to CD RSS feeds. True health nuts can download CDC widgets (including seasonal flu updates and public health data) to display on their personal computer screens. You can even send an e-card to friends and family on everything from preventing Strep B to fireworks safety.
While the CDC is often in the media spotlight telling the public what to do after an infectious outbreak, much of the brand’s efforts are geared toward disease and injury prevention, and the organization realizes that it can’t accomplish this on its own. It puts much of the responsibility into the public’s own hands, with a library of tools and resources available on the site. There’s a handy BMI calculator, childhood immunization schedules, and pointers on how to get birth and death certificates. Even the kids can have a hand in their own well-being with the BAM! Body and Mind section, which includes everything from food and nutrition tips for growing bodies to advice from Elli the Safety Xpert.
In an age where Internet-driven information can often lead to misinformation from dubious sources (which in turn can drive erroneous self-diagnoses), the CDC’s credibility is a necessary hallmark (the home page’s tagline reads “Your Online Source for Credible Health Information”). The site not only has to present information from respected sources (a hefty data and statistics section is one way the agency seeks to achieve this goal), but it also has to act swiftly and decisively when the brand’s overall credibility is challenged. This happened most notably during the anthrax crisis that immediately followed the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Part of the criticism regarding the CDC’s role during the anthrax event centered on a lack of a clear, centralized message, with muddled, conflicted directives coming from too many internal CDC sources, creating a confused, fearful public. There are links on the site to some of the CDC’s “brand extensions,” including the National Center for Health Marketing, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. One can imagine how a national health crisis, combined with a slew of experts weighing in from different subdivisions within the same agency, can result in communal chaos.
Some of the brand extensions have not even been met favorably by CDC’s own employees. More than a few health professionals, for example, resisted the establishment of the National Center for Health Marketing, created to promote public health through marketing programs, products, and services. Business and financial matters should not infringe upon the direction of a public-health organization, say detractors, and by starting to “brand” an organization like the CDC and its affiliated subdivisions, that’s exactly what would happen.