The Ebola epidemic in Western Africa and its (very limited) spread to the U.S. represents not only a public health crisis, but a PR and communications challenge for healthcare providers, aid organizations, and governments. Much of the blame for the sensationalized coverage in this country goes to national media outlets who fanned the flames of fear with wall-to-wall coverage, even in the absence of factual updates. But trusted government agencies and institutions also failed the PR test in many ways. Here are some of the relevant reminders and learnings for professional communicators.
Never speak in absolutes. It’s the goal of any public health officer to prevent unreasonable fear or panic, particularly given misconceptions about Ebola’s transmission. But CDC Director Tom Frieden’s confident statement in late September that we would “stop Ebola in its tracks” here was followed by a wave of scary headlines as Texas healthcare workers were diagnosed with the virus. This undermined Frieden’s credibility, to say the least. The Director would have done better to focus on specific actions being taken to protect the public health. As infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told the media, “Nothing is risk-free.”
Take responsibility. Dr. Frieden’s explanation that nurse Nina Pham was infected due to a “breach in protocol” was widely interpreted as blaming the victim, a hardworking nurse doing her best to care for a critically ill patient. Most observers reasoned that if the hospital couldn’t adopt the proper protocol for its staff, it was due to inadequate training or oversight, or a failure of the protocol itself. Frieden later walked back his comment and admitted that the CDC should have sent in a “more robust infection control team.”
Control communications. This is easier said than done, given the speed of new developments and the insatiable media appetite for information, but nothing sows panic like incomplete or contradictory information. This was particularly apparent when the second Dallas healthcare worker contracted the virus. Varying explanations about what nurse Amber Joy Vinson was told, and by whom, about whether she should travel on a commercial flight while self-monitoring reinforced the sense of disorganization and disconnectedness between federal and local officials. It looked like no one was in charge.
Don’t rely on traditional media. Media today are under pressure to publish fast and first, and mistakes happen on their side, too, so direct access to the public is essential. The CDC took to social media to share updates, and it ultimately set up an Ebola information hotline to handle public inquiries. But its reaction was slow. The Denver Post reported that passengers on Vinson’s flight who called the CDC for guidance were still waiting for a response days later.
Show, don’t just tell. President Obama did well to scrub campaign travel and other nonessential commitments to demonstrate that the Ebola outbreak was at the top of his priority list. His tapping of Ron Klain as “Ebola Czar” is also theoretically the right move, although Klain’s lack of health or medical expertise has made the choice both politicized and controversial.
Be transparent. This is where the CDC’s Frieden ultimately succeeded after weeks of confusion. In public statements and under harsh questioning at a Capitol Hill hearing, Frieden admitted mistakes, outlined “more robust” protocols, and explained why he opposes a travel ban. The testimony of Daniel Varga, Chief Clinical Officer for the company that includes Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, included an apology for mistakes and reinforced Frieden’s remarks in a sign that health officials have finally marshalled a coherent response to the virus – both on the ground and in the arena of public communications.