It’s not often that I come across situations that involve crisis communications, public health, social media and reputation management. Call it the Jim Garrow quad-fecta (yes, I just made that up). But today I have one. And it’s a doozy.
Unless you’ve been ignoring the national news (and local news in 14 states thus far), you are aware of the meningitis outbreak associated with contaminated steroids. When the story first broke out of Tennessee, and we learned more about the infection vector and causative fungus, I said that it would get worse before it got better, and it has. As of this morning, at least 15 deaths have been linked to the situation, and at least one other product from the offending pharmacy has been identified as a potential source of infection. The company has shut down and lawsuits have already been filed. The CDC has been holding almost regular conference calls updating the media on the situation. These are, in every definition of the phrase, crisis communications.
The three other parts of my little quad-fecta come from an article that Mashable published yesterday morning on the outbreak. The few folks who understand public health lanes and divisions between different agencies should have questioned why the media and public information response to the outbreak has unfurled the way it has. There’s a few clues above. First, everyone keeps calling it a meningitis outbreak (which is technically true, but the cause and continued threat is actually the contaminated drug). Second, I mentioned above that the CDC is holding conference calls. According to the way our federal public health agencies are organized should dictate that this is an FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) response. But they’ve seemingly taken a backseat on the response, and have even allowed their subject-matter experts to participate in CDC media conference calls.
The Mashable article (with data taken from social media monitoring company iMedSocial) demonstrates that not only has the CDC taken the lead on this response, but the public is actively seeking out information from the CDC:
In fact, from Sept. 9 to Oct. 10, “CDC” has been searched 13,019 times, while “FDA” was searched only 3,722 times. Graeser thinks this proves how much people respect and look to the CDC when it comes to infectious disease, even if, in this particular case, the illness is not actually infectious.
This is exactly the type of thing that we should expect to happen in a disaster, crisis or other stressful situation. I would expect the public to seek out sources of information that they’re comfortable with, from sources that have demonstrated that they have information and are willing to give it out in a format that the public appreciates and can digest. In short, sources they feel they can trust. The CDC has spent buckets of time, money, personnel and resources on establishing themselves as a credible, plain language, accessible, available source of health information, and now we’re seeing the result of that effort. In a crisis, the public (and the media) are turning to them for updates and the latest news. They’re giving them the benefit of the doubt.
In an emergency or a crisis, isn’t that all that we, as communicators, responders and agencies, really want? Just the benefit of the doubt? To have people look to us for information on what’s happening? And yet, who among us has done as much as CDC has to establish themselves as expert information brokers? Who among us has embraced social media to such an extent as CDC? Who among us has dedicated the staff needed to respond to our own personal crises like CDC?
Instead, we depend upon the public to trust us because we’re the government, or we’re a respected agency, or we haven’t done anything wrong. When that fails, we gripe about the public reading blogs that offer non-expert opinions and deal in innuendo and misdirection. We rail against the media seeking out counter-balancing information sources. We yell at our overworked communications staff who are forced to rely on twentieth-century technology and information distribution mores.
If you want to be seen as that critical information point, you need to understand that it takes INVESTMENT. Investment in your staff to try new methods of communication, investment in distributing information whenever and where ever the public are seeking it, investment in building relationships with the media that goes beyond an occasional press release. If we want to be trusted in a crisis, we have to build that trust before the crisis. And there’s not shortcut for doing that.