Abstract: Communities of Practice: Intersectional and Interdisciplinary Response to Outbreaks of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is an endemic plague that has killed millions of wild birds and farmed poultry, cost billions of dollars in lost revenue, and has remained a significant zoonotic threat to human health. Considering the many ways in which the disease can be transmitted via human behavior, communication researchers have a responsibility to discover and disseminate effective strategies to increase biosecurity efforts and decrease the risk of contagion. A particularly efficacious framework for this is communities of practice (CoP). CoP are synergistic collectives of experts from diverse backgrounds who use their expertise to communicate regularly to solve shared problems (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder, 2008). This study analyzed interview data from 11 interdisciplinary experts who responded to HPAI outbreaks in Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota between 2014 and 2016. Veterinarians as well as government and university extension agents were asked to reflect upon the lessons they learned from these crisis events. Interview transcripts were coded for evidence of the CoP variables: mutual engagement (i.e., intersectional and interdisciplinary relationships), shared repertoire (i.e., knowledge of biosecurity strategies), and negotiation of joint enterprise (i.e., communication of expertise to stakeholders). Essentially, mutual engagement refers to “the who,” shared repertoire refers to “the what,” and negotiation of joint enterprise refers to “the how” in CoP. Results indicated that individuals from poultry corporations, farm owners, managers, and workers, as well as veterinarians and agents from federal and state governments mutually engaged to respond to outbreaks of HPAI. Of primary concern in their shared repertoire were ideas about how to reduce the risk of spreading the virus (e.g., creating barriers for visitors, buying animals from reputable sources, suspending poultry shows at state fairs) by comparing model and anti-model biosecurity practices they observed. Perhaps what was most interesting were the numerous challenges mentioned in the negotiation of joint enterprise. Some interviewees noted that response teams must be local and speak plainly to stakeholders using narratives that would accurately reflect the risks of poor biosecurity. Building supportive interpersonal relationships with farmers was recommended to help lessen the often-devastating psychological effects of losing an entire flock of animals. Other interviewees noted that communication should be highly centralized and official, as this would decrease proliferation of inaccurate information, as well as increase the ethos of crisis response teams from outside the local community. Overall, this analysis reveals that there is tremendous opportunity to grow CoP via the inclusion of communication practitioners with diverse expertise (e.g., health, risk and crisis, interpersonal, and mass media) which could make CoP like this better prepared for future crises.