For anyone who’s seen the 1995 movie Outbreak, or even for those who haven’t, the thought of intentionally importing a deadly virus with no known cure into the US is terrifying.
Yet, as two American doctors infected with Ebola made their way to Atlanta recently, the news coverage was relatively measured, devoid of the sensationalism that could have easily accompanied these rare events.
Credit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and officials at Emory University Hospital. While often it’s easy to recognize when communications efforts go awry, it’s not so obvious when high-stakes situations like these are handled well. In this case, officials have been making all of the right moves.
First, CDC and Emory officials began communicating early to shape the environment around what they likely knew would be a media frenzy. CDC Director Tom Frieden saturated the airwaves, including appearances on each of the network Sunday shows. Likewise, Emory University Hospital officials held a press briefing in advance of the arrival of Dr. Kent Brantly, the first American doctor airlifted to Atlanta.
Second, both the CDC and Emory have been educating the public about the Ebola virus, how it is transmitted, the details of the transfers, and the preparations underway to contain the disease. Officials have repeatedly stressed that Ebola isn’t an airborne virus, which makes it more difficult to spread. They highlighted the special features of the medical transport jet involved. Emory University Hospital released a statement emphasizing that its "state of the art" isolation unit is physically separate from other patient areas and one of four such units in the country. Communicating these facts early and often has been critical to keeping anxiety levels in check.
Third, CDC and hospital officials have been clear, direct, and confident in their statements, leaving little room to doubt their ability to handle the virus. On CBS’ Face the Nation, Dr. Frieden of the CDC proclaimed, "The plain fact is, we can stop [Ebola]." He repeated the same talking point on ABC’s This Week. "The plain truth is, we can stop Ebola. We know how to control it," Frieden said.
Emory University Hospital’s Dr. Bruce Ribner has been equally upbeat, portraying a cool, calm, and collected attitude that’s mirrored in the coverage. When asked about the possibility of Ebola spreading, Ribner said confidently, "I have no concerns about either my personal health or the health of the other healthcare workers who will be working in that unit." Meanwhile, he has repeatedly emphasized his staff’s training and preparation, telling one newspaper, "Hey, we've been practicing for this for 12 years." Ribner’s message? "Don’t worry, we’ve got this."
Fourth, the CDC and Emory aren’t just relying on traditional media; both have been actively engaged on social media, sharing updates, retweeting each other, and otherwise being active participants in online conversations. For example, the CDC is tweeting infographics about the virus and even hosted a Twitter Q&A on the subject.
Last but not least, the CDC and Emory University Hospital put forward the right faces and voices – doctors with advanced training in infectious diseases. The white lab coat carries credibility and commands trust. Officials could have opted to communicate through spokespeople or carefully worded statements. After all, the doctors are a little busy with patients. But whether intentional or accidental, putting the medical experts out front provided an extra level of reassurance.
Dr. Tom Frieden, Dr. Bruce Ribner, and their colleagues successfully controlled the narrative about the transfers of the two American doctors to Atlanta, reassuring a potentially anxious public. Their command of the media bodes well for the more daunting task at hand – controlling the actual virus.
Andrew Koneschusky is a partner at Washington, DC-based communications firm CLS Strategies.