Many of the US' elected officials received universal praise after.
the September 11 attacks. But federal agencies are falling short as
their wires get crossed over anthrax. Allen Houston reports.
Contradictory messages, misinformation, foot dragging, and the lack of a
single spokesperson have all hindered government efforts to convey the
threat of anthrax to a jittery public.
The administration's bungled handling of the anthrax attacks that have
left three dead has been the subject of scathing criticism and intense
debate in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the LA
Times. It has also been a much-discussed topic on Sunday-morning talk
shows, where commentators and career politicians have questioned whether
the government has responded and communicated as effectively as
The agencies facing the most withering scrutiny are the Centers for
Disease Control (CDC), the Department of Health and Human Services, and
the newly anointed Department of Homeland Security.
But while the besieged press has staked out a generally negative
position on how these agencies have responded to the crisis, the
American public has been more forgiving. A USA Today survey finds that
77% of US citizens are confident that the government can handle a major
anthrax outbreak, and a new Harris Interactive poll shows that the CDC's
approval rating is at 79%, the highest of ten federal agencies including
the FBI, the EPA, and the FDA.
Experts on healthcare and terrorism are also muted in their criticism of
how the government has handled the situation, willing to give the Bush
administration the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
The main challenge facing the government during the anthrax attacks is
that there are currently more questions than there are answers. New
information and cases of anthrax are being discovered on a daily basis,
and as the various agencies pour over data and track leads, a
disconcerting amount of contradictory statements have been communicated
to the public.
Sometimes, these statements directly follow each other, such as an ABC
Evening News segment in which Ari Fleischer said that the Bush
administration believes that the anthrax detected in so many government
offices came from the one letter sent to Sen. Tom Daschle. This was
closely followed by a spokesperson for the CDC claiming that the spores
could have been distributed through several undiscovered letters mailed
to the government.
Some people in the industry think that the government is in a no-win
situation. It is under a crunch to provide up-to-date information to a
public that would rather have reassurances that the government is doing
something than have completely accurate information.
"It's a classic communications risk," says Marc Shannon, director of
Ketchum's Washington, DC healthcare practice. "If you don't get out
enough information, you are criticized for being secretive. And if you
give too much information, you are criticized for stirring up
The government has also been judged for its tardiness in responding to
the post office crisis, as well as for its off-again-on-again statements
as to whether the anthrax was weapons-grade or not. Nevertheless, some
believe that it's easy to criticize the Bush administration, and that
the terrorists probably want agencies pointing fingers at each other to
undermine the public's trust in the government.
"For being in completely new territory, these agencies are doing as good
a job as can be expected. They are being as open as they can, and they
are giving answers when they are provided with them. However, I think
that the main message should be concerned with relating the health risks
of anthrax to the public," says Myron Marlin, senior partner at APCO
"Above all, if they don't have the information, they shouldn't provide
the public with misinformation because when they contradict themselves,
the public loses faith."
Other people agree that the government should not be so quick to respond
to questions until it is able to provide accurate scientific
"While I can understand how the government has handled the situation, I
do think that they could have done a better job of explaining scientific
details about anthrax to the public," says Larry Sasich, a pharmacist
for Public Citizen, a public interest group.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have complained that the
government has made missteps in providing information to the public.
Speaking at a press conference with New York postal workers, Sen. Hilary
Clinton said, "We have to do a better job of getting out the most
accurate information we can at the time. I'm well aware that this is
changing as we learn more, but we have to have a better system for
communicating with workers and citizens."
No clear spokesperson
One area of criticism where PR execs and the press agree is that in the
initial chaos of the first three weeks of the anthrax attacks, there was
no clear spokesperson established as the sole authority to provide
information to the public.
"The government needs a single person to be the main source of
information, like Ari Fleischer is for the president," says Gary
Ackerman, a research associate who studies terrorism and weapons of mass
destruction at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "It
provides a uniformity and consistency of message that will soothe the
Michael Durand, EVP of the global healthcare practice at Porter Novelli,
agrees. "This is a time when leadership is critical. Every time one of
these groups contradicts each other, that destroys credibility. The
government needs to establish one point of contact for this crisis that
the media can get information from."
Initial thinking that Tommy Thompson, director of Health and Human
Services, would step up to the plate was quashed after Thompson appeared
on 60 Minutes to talk about US preparations for biowarfare. "We've got
to make sure that people understand that they're safe," said Thompson,
"and that we're prepared to take care of any contingency, any
consequence that develops from any kind of bioterrorism attack." The
problem was that in the next morning's newspapers, Thompson was derided
for coming across as unsure and hesitant in answering certain
And while the CDC's profile and purpose is more widely understood than
ever before, it doesn't have the stature of the DHHS. And CDC director
Dr. Jeffrey Koplan doesn't have the name recognition of Tommy Thompson
or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who as the director of homeland
security, is seen as the most obvious choice to speak with the press
about bioterrorist attacks.
"Tom Ridge has stepped up to a lot of responsibility," says Marc
Shannon, director of Ketchum's DC healthcare practice. "As he gets his
feet under him, he's going to do a better job of taking over the reins
and providing information."
Responding to criticism about the lack of a unifying speaker, the White
House decided to raise Ridge's awareness level by allowing him to give
three press briefings a week to discuss the threat of terrorism. Ridge
appeared on Good Morning America, the Today show, and the CBS Morning
News in one day to talk about what the government was doing.
Choosing Tom Ridge as the sole spokesperson to field questions about
anthrax may be the easy part, however. As one industry insider put it,
"In a normal crisis, the goal is to get back to a state of normalcy as
soon as possible. But the problem here is that no one knows what
normalcy is or where this war on terror is going to take us."
In other words, the government might get its anthrax communications in
order only to find that the next threat is already upon us.