New York: While conflicting messages about anthrax coming from
various government departments have been the subject of much derision in
the media, a panel of communications, medical, and terrorism experts
have given the government high marks in how it is has responded to the
Under scrutiny have been the CDC, FEMA, the Department of Health and
Human Services, and the Department of Home-land Security.
Particularly revealing is a Harris/Interactive poll showing that the
public gives the CDC the most favorable rating of ten federal agencies,
including the FBI, EPA, and FDA. The result contradicts the media
blasting the CDC for the way it has handled the post office anthrax
"The CDC is a brand that everyone respects, and it has been rightfully
lauded for the way that it handled its past communications efforts,"
said Michael Durand, EVP of the global healthcare practice at Porter
"But in a way, it may be relying on that reservoir of good feeling as it
learns how to handle these unprecedented attacks."
The main difficulty for government agencies trying to establish a clear
communications plan about the anthrax scare is that there are more
questions than answers. This has led to figures such as Tommy Thompson,
secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, being
criticized by the press for lacking a clear message.
"For being in completely new territory, these agencies are doing as good
a job as can be expected," said Myron Marlin, senior partner at APCO
Worldwide, in their defense. "They are being as open as they can, and
they are giving answers when they are provided with them."
Marc Shannon, director of Ketchum's Washington, DC healthcare practice,
said the government would be criticized no matter how it responded to
the anthrax attacks.
"It's the classic communications risk," said Shannon. "If you don't get
out enough information, you are criticized for being secretive. And if
you give too much, you are criticized for stirring up anxiety,"
The main criticism PR execs have had is that there needs to be a better
job of coordinating information between government agencies to transmit
a consistent message.
"The government needs a single person to be the main source of
information, like Ari Fleischer is for the President, said Gary
Ackerman, a research associate who studies terrorism and weapons of mass
destruction at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Like many others in the PR industry and elsewhere, Ackerman said that
role should be assigned to director of homeland security Tom Ridge.