Early in her career as a TV reporter, Betsy Stark interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci. It was at the height of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s, and the infectious disease specialist was one of the principal architects of President George H.W. Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
She recalls many of the traits that have become familiar to millions of Americans a quarter century later during the coronavirus pandemic. Fauci's ability to communicate clearly and calmly on an emotionally fraught topic was masterful then, recalls Stark, now MD of content and media strategy at Ogilvy PR.
“One thing that impressed me then and impresses me now is his ability to communicate important medical science in plain English. You can't fully deliver on your mission as a public health leader if you're not able to simplify the complex,” says Stark.
Fauci has emerged as the federal government’s point person on coronavirus. “A straight shooter,” as one PR pro refers to him. “America’s doctor,” according to The New Yorker. And in the words of President Donald Trump, “a major television star.” In an administration void of a consistent voice on the global pandemic, Fauci is filling in in with aplomb.
According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 60% of Americans trust what Fauci says about the coronavirus versus only 36%for the commander-in-chief. Conversely, only 8% of respondents say they don’t trust Fauci compared to more than half of respondents (52%) who felt that way about Trump.
What has given Fauci such astounding credibility, especially given that he was little known to the public a few months ago? For one, his decades of experience. Since 1984, Fauci has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. He has advised six presidents on public health crises, including Ebola and Zika.
Stark says his appeal comes from the fact “that he's such a genuine public servant. He comes from humble beginnings, seems disinterested in celebrity, and he's plowing away at this job at the age of 80, having turned down higher posts. This is his life's work and he is committed to it.”
His nonpartisan bonafides are reinforced in his media relations strategy, which appears designed to get him in front of as many people as possible and explain COVID-19, who is most at risk and how the public can protect themselves from infection.
“His ubiquity in the media seems to be driven by his sense of mission as a public health servant,” says Stark. “How do you get the most accurate, potentially life-saving information to the greatest number of people across the greatest diversity of audiences? Make yourself available to a vast variety of conduits through the media.”
Or, as Stark calls it, “saturation through repetition.”
Fauci doesn’t just make appearances during Trump’s daily press briefings, or only on cable news channels like CNN and Fox News Channel. He has done extensive Q&As with print media like Vanity Fair. Fauci has also gone less traditional routes like Snapchat shows hosted by the likes of NBA star Stephen Curry and journalist Peter Hamby, live Facebook conversations with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and personalities like Desus & Mero.
This week, he chatted with Will Smith on the actor’s Snapchat series Will From Home. That appearance generated plenty of positive press after Fauci deftly and sweetly handled innocent questions posed to him by young children about the coronavirus.
Experts say Fauci understands he needs to be everywhere because the crisis has killed 50,000 Americans. Media relations pros point to another key factor: Trump’s comments on the global pandemic have been often contradictory and confusing. The president also sticks largely to Twitter and combative White House briefings.
If the pandemic had happened during the presidencies of Barack Obama or George W. Bush, Fauci would likely not be nearly as omnipresent, says Michael Kempner, founder and CEO at MWWPR.
“As important as Fauci would be, given he is a uniquely trusted voice in times of a healthcare crisis, people would still be looking first to the president,” says Kempner. “But in the absence of presidential leadership, Fauci has become the most important, recognized and, in some ways, the sole voice of authority, trust and openness for the government.”
Lessons from his media strategy
Fauci is trying to help the greatest number of Americans by getting information to them through the media they consume. It is why he is saying yes to so much press, even on channels he might not use or with personalities perhaps previously unknown to him.
Brad Burke, EVP of integrated media strategy at Weber Shandwick, says leaders in other sectors can learn from Fauci by saying “yes” more often to non-traditional media.
“There’s a point in any leader’s career when someone offers you an interview opportunity you may not fully understand, or where the host curses or where they veer into comedy,” he says. “The best leaders roll with it. They have a single-minded focus on the message, and they trust their teams to help broadcast that message, even if it makes them personally uncomfortable.”
“He doesn’t seem to care who he’s talking to, he only cares who he is influencing,” adds Burke.
Another takeaway for public figures: don’t try to impress or charm the host. Instead, remember why you are there, which is to communicate a message to the audience. Burke classifies Fauci as “that rare person who becomes a ubiquitous media figure without de-evolving into a walking soundbite.”
“I can tell you very quickly what his recommendations are [around COVID-19], but I can’t really think of any specific witticisms or turns of phrase he’s banged into the ground,” Burke says. “His expertise flows naturally interview to interview.”
Scott Farrell, president of global corporate comms at Golin, who leads the firm’s work on all things related to COVID-19, says Fauci demonstrates the power of authenticity over credibility, regardless of who he is talking to in the media. While he clearly has the credentials, “it is his authenticity that turns him into someone who is more than just a talking head,” says Farrell.
It has also separated Fauci from Dr. Deborah Birx, who, as coronavirus-response coordinator for the White House’s COVID-19 task force, is also highly credible.
“But she doesn’t bring to the table the humanity and authenticity that Fauci does,” says Farrell. “The most important quality executives can bring to the lectern, podium or interview chair is their humanity. You can have all the facts and figures and experience, but your credibility is going to suffer without that element coming through in the conversation.”
Lee Carter, president at maslansky + partners, applauds Fauci’s blanket media approach. It also addresses one of the challenges of communicating about COVID-19: people are turning off the news at the advice of mental health experts when it becomes too much.
“There are all kinds of experts who say we shouldn’t watch more than 15 minutes of news per day or we will be too stressed out,” says Carter. “So he is using the media to get information out in a way that is consumable and relevant,” like talking with Smith or Curry from their homes.
Given his popularity, it isn’t inconceivable that Trump, who clearly likes to be the center of attention, could demand Fauci pull back from the limelight. On April 12, the same day Fauci told CNN that earlier mitigation efforts to contain COVID-19 could have saved lives, Trump retweeted a message that read, “Time to #FireFauci.” And media noted this week that Fauci hadn’t appeared at the administration’s daily briefings until Wednesday, April 22.
Despite these readings of the tea leaves, most say it’s unlikely Fauci is going anywhere.
“I think Trump values his presence on his team, because without him, his press briefings would essentially become mini campaign rallies,” says Carter. “He knows how important Fauci is going to be in helping people feel safe and calm in going back to normal life.”