Across the globe, the conversation about Ebola has been punctuated with unwarranted fears, misperceptions, occasional medical errors and failure to adhere to basic principles for managing crisis communications. One of the experts who is helping the federal government create and maintain effective methods of communicating about Ebola is Matthew Seeger, dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts at Wayne State University in Detroit.
He is a national figure in crisis and risk communication and has written 10 books on the subject. For 12 years, beginning with the anthrax scare, he has worked with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on communications around crisis and public health, and he has co-authored the 2014 CDC “handbook” on communicating in a crisis, Crisis Emergency Risk Communication.
Currently he is working in conjunction with the CDC on two projects relating to the Ebola outbreak. One entails “narrative mapping” to analyze how news stories about Ebola relate to one another and create a master narrative. The other involves talking with people who travel by air to learn where they are getting information about Ebola and how they are interpreting it in relation to air travel.
I had the opportunity to ask Dean Seeger what American businesses, institutions and agencies are doing right and what they’ve done wrong regarding communications around the Ebola issue and to learn his recommendations for what we all should be doing now.
Dean Seeger, we’ve all heard about the medical errors made in Texas; what communications mistakes did the hospital there make regarding their Ebola patients?
Let me say first that the risk of Ebola to the general public is very, very small—barely measurable. We have a novel, scary, poorly understood disease and have blown the risk wildly out of proportion. At Texas Health Presbyterian, people fell into the standard crisis traps. They were not sufficiently open and forthright in their communications and sought to over-assure people that nothing could possibly happen to them. Those two errors can be very devastating with crisis communications. In Texas, hospital personnel weren’t prepared to communicate about Ebola appropriately, their messages weren’t very well coordinated with national messages, they didn’t address the internal audiences that they needed to reach and they weren’t sufficiently transparent with those audiences.
Across the country, what mistakes have communicators for medical facilities and government agencies been making, and what have they been doing right in relation to communications about Ebola?
I’ve written crisis training for the CDC, so I’m a bit biased, but CDC Director Tom Frieden has been a very successful spokesperson. He’s very responsive, open and flexible in responding to curve balls. Frieden has been careful to “bookend” his responses, beginning with the phrase, “Based on what we currently know…” and ending with, “Circumstances will likely change, and when they do we will accommodate them.” This phrasing provides the flexibility needed to change policies or procedures when the situation changes. We shouldn’t say, “We know what will happen and we are going to stop this in its tracks,” because we don’t know. Uncertainty is a defining trait of any crisis.
Most important, organizations issuing statements about Ebola must be sure they are reflecting scientific knowledge. I would encourage hospitals, airlines and people going overseas to develop statements that are consistent with what we’re being told by the CDC and science-based organizations and get those statements out to the public in a consistent way. Businesses with employees traveling internationally should monitor the CDC guidelines and carefully attend to CDC recommendations, while reflecting those recommendations in their messages to employees and the public.
What role can and should social media play in communications around Ebola?
Social media are powerful tools in a crisis. They have the ability to crowd-source a problem, be just in time, and furnish monitoring of what is concerning the public. My first advice to managing a crisis is to monitor social media, particularly Twitter. You’ll see what the concerns are and any misinformation that is circulating. Close to 70 percent of Twitter posts now are from organizations or reposts of organizations’ tweets. You’ll see a lot of CDC messages there, because the CDC is extremely active in social media. More than half of its communications efforts are directed toward social media to get information out very quickly.
What should communicators keep in mind when managing Ebola-related communications?
1. Avoid over-assurance, saying that “nothing bad is going to happen to you.” Often officials say this in a misguided attempt to forestall panic, but such statements can be devastating in themselves.
2. Saturate the informational environment to give people more information than they need, being incredibly transparent. Make sure that any issue that arises is addressed to avert rumors and to dispel the belief that you are keeping something from the public.
3. Be flexible and dynamic in accommodating changes, using phrases like, “Now that things have changed, and based on what we know now, this is what we think should be happening.”
4. Put the risk in context. When people ask me how they can avoid getting Ebola, I tell them to get a flu shot, or quit smoking, or get more exercise. These are more important factors in staying healthy.