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Social media to die for: Preparing for a zombie apocalypse

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This post was written by Troy Janisch, with art from Mark Anderson. Both contributors have two decades of digital-marketing experience and lead social media activities at American Family Insurance, a Fortune 300 company. Janisch blogs at, and Anderson shares his art at

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently turned to the undead to make it more approachable, and more effective at one of its core missions.

When CDC staff from the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response asked Twitter users what types of emergencies they were prepared for, answers citing tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes were numerous. Some people also submitted humorous answers, asking the CDC about zombie preparedness. With this in mind, the team decided to increase awareness of its 2011 hurricane-preparedness campaign by adding some deadpan content to attract readership. The result? A blog post titled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.”

“We realized this wasn’t the typically health message a federal agency like CDC might put out, but we really wanted to grab people’s attention because disaster preparedness is an important and simple way to save lives and property,” said Maggie Silver, a health communication specialist for the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. “To make sure people realized we were being tongue in cheek, we continually referred to ‘real’ emergencies like floods, hurricanes and earthquakes throughout the course of our blog and social media outreach.”

The public response was overwhelming. The CDC estimated that the post cost $89 to produce, yet it generated more than 3.6 billion impressions and more than 450 comments. The CDC trended worldwide on Twitter and was later recognized by the 2011 Platinum PR Awards. The CDC won in the Blog and Wow categories and honorable mentions in the PR on a Shoestring, Social Media Campaign and Word of Mouth categories.

The irony of going viral isn’t lost on CDC staff. “It’s been really fun reading all the comments left on Twitter, Facebook and the blog,” said Kristin Banks, a health communication specialist on the CDC’s Emergency Web & Social Media Team. “People are really into zombies and have seriously considered what they would do if there was a zombie apocalypse. It’s just funny to read through what they write. We also have enjoyed the comments from people who let us know that they are going to make an emergency kit and are going to learn what disasters they need to be prepared for in their area.”

The spontaneous campaign became part of a long-term strategy to fulfill the CDC’s mission to ensure the public’s emergency preparedness and response capability. Since its success, the CDC added a permanent Zombie Preparedness page to its website. It includes a graphic novella, “Zombie Pandemic,” that uses the idea of a zombie apocalypse to demonstrate the importance of being prepared and what might happen in a real emergency. Included is a personal-preparedness checklist so readers can take action once they’re done reading. The page also allows the public to print, share and order a series of Zombie Preparedness posters and to enter a video contest. The top disaster-preparedness video submitted by the public will be featured on the CDC home page to thousands of visitors.

“We feel like we’ve really connected to the public,” Silver said. “We didn’t just reach audiences that were already interested in disaster preparedness, we reached people who had never before thought about what they would do if their town flooded or was struck by a devastating earthquake. This is really important because this is the hard to reach population that we are always trying to get.”