Ebola outbreaks have occurred in tropical regions of Sub-Saharan Africa since 1976. The first outbreak affected 318 people and killed 280. And while last year’s outbreak was much larger in scale – more than 14,000 affected and over 5,000 dead – and spread to the US via aid workers, public health institutes were ready with a comprehensive communications plan.
For two of the most renowned health organizations – the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) – a lot of the work was already done as both had prepared plans on how to communicate during an outbreak.
WHO’s PR team, for instance, has ongoing outbreak and risk comms training and priorities, which include: communicating with the public in ways that build, maintain, or restore trust; making sure announcements occur as early as possible; ensuring transparency; and understanding the target audience and its pre-existing beliefs.
The CDC’s PR principles in this kind of situation include being first, right, credible, expressing empathy, promoting action, and showing respect.
"Helping people understand a potential outbreak is not a question of what your message is, as much as what principles you want to bring to your messaging," says the CDC’s public affairs director Barbara Reynolds. "Values and principles help guide us when things get as chaotic as they can."
With Ebola, for example, the CDC’s main focus has been on being as open and inclusive as early as possible, notes Reynolds.
"Within two hours of diagnosing the first case of Ebola in the US, we were holding a national press conference," she adds. "We were trying to set the tone that we are going to share what we know when we know it."
Although WHO has universal guidelines and principles for communicating during a potential crisis, the message may vary country to country based on local conditions and beliefs.
For instance, the organization found that unsafe burials of people who had died from Ebola were a major driver of the epidemic in West Africa.
"People kept using burial practices in which the whole family washes the body," says Daniel Epstein, a WHO spokesperson. "We had some difficulty convincing people that dead bodies could still spread Ebola."
Eventually, local religious leaders were enlisted to persuade people to follow WHO’s directions.
Meanwhile, in the US, there was "zero understanding" about Ebola when the first patients were diagnosed, Reynolds adds.
To quell the "fear, anger, and confusion" across the country, the CDC held a Twitter chat, which garnered more than 161 million views, according to Reynolds.
The organization also created infographics to explain how the disease spreads and invited media to its emergency operation center to see how it is working to solve the issue. In addition, the CDC produced videos aimed at educating healthcare workers on how to use personal protective equipment correctly.
To keep people informed about the disease and how affected countries are responding, WHO has a series of pages on its site that feature stories about what employees are doing in the field.
Dealing with setbacks
But even the best-laid plans can fall flat. Refining a PR strategy in this kind of situation should be expected, says Reynolds. For example, the Associated Press almost hindered WHO’s efforts in October when it published a story that claimed the organization "botched" the response to the disease in Africa.
The allegation came after AP obtained a draft internal memo, which included statements from WHO officials blaming incompetent staff, among other factors, for the Ebola outbreak.
"That leak was a big setback for us," says Epstein, who disagrees with the allegations. The health organization told AP it is investigating its initial response to the disease.
"If you have a plan that works, you must be prepared for when it doesn’t due to elements that come into play that were not anticipated," says Reynolds.
WHO’s tough policy on embargoes
WHO suspends reporters from receiving its emailed news for a three-month period if they break embargoes
"Since many of our stories deal with complex public health issues, we often send material in advance, under strict embargoes, to give journalists a chance to read or do further research on the information," says WHO spokesperson Daniel Epstein.
"We have to be fair to all the reporters who respect our embargoes, and that’s why we suspend those who don’t."
But reporters don’t always agree with the suspensions. In November, a BuzzFeed staffer was accidentally copied in on an email from WHO about one of the news outlet’s reporters being suspended from receiving the organization’s Ebola situation report due to "inaccurate" reporting on the issue and attending WHO meetings without permit.
In response, BuzzFeed reporters tweeted about the incident, in support of their colleague. WHO’s communications director Christy Feig retorted by explaining the organization’s policy via her Twitter page.