ANALYSIS: Crisis Communications - Confused messages spur switch tosole spokesman

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

public's anxiety."

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.

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