In the multiple layers of the current international Ebola crisis, how key public health officials communicate about the present and future is probably considered last.
And one can’t really argue that. The African disaster must be contained and patients helped; the spread of the infectious disease must be thwarted; health care workers must protect and be protected. And on and one goes the list, almost to infinity.
Yet somewhere down the line, and especially here where we think about such things, we must look at how we communicate — carefully, factually, effectively.
The specter of Ebola — weaponized through suicide spreaders or just taking its inevitable course around the globe — screams panic.
Consider the opening of this story in today’s New York Times:
Federal health officials have offered repeated assurances that most American hospitals can safely treat Ebola, but Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which had years of preparation for just such a crisis, found out how hard that is while it cared for three Ebola patients.
As doctors and nurses there worked to keep desperately ill patients alive in August, the county threatened to disconnect Emory from sewer lines if Ebola wastes went down the drain. The company that hauled medical trash to the incinerator refused to take anything used on an Ebola patient unless it was sterilized first. Couriers would not drive the patients’ blood samples a few blocks away for testing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And pizza places would not deliver to staff members in any part of the hospital.
“It doesn’t matter how much you plan,” Dr. Bruce Ribner, an infectious disease specialist who directed the patients’ care, said in an interview. “You’re going to be wrong half the time.”
Such a diverse and pervasive crisis creates scores of spokespeople, from heads of governments to hospital CEOs to the World Bank to aid groups.
Let’s single out one, at the heart of the U.S. response, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s all right there in his title.
In his news conference yesterday he presented a polished, factual and far from clinical look at this plague that’s still in its earliest stages. He will likely become the public health face of this situation in America.
Viewing his presentation yesterday as a coach, it’s clear the Frieden has all the uncoachable abilities you seek. He’s calm, even, well modulated and projects sincerity. He apologized for a day earlier making it sound like he criticized the hospital, infected health-care worker and procedures involving the “index patient” who died in a Dallas hospital. And you felt he meant it.
A worried public takes away cues and messages from leaders like Frieden. His qualities, training and presentation should go a long way to improving confidence in the government’s response to Ebola, at least in the United States.
We will likely hear from him more often and under much heightened pressure before this scourge recedes, and we’ll watch closely.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.