When Centers for Disease Control (CDC) chief Dr. Thomas Frieden told reporters after the first Texas hospital nurse contracted Ebola, “I think the fact that we don’t know of a breach in protocol is concerning because clearly there was a breach in protocol,” he violated a cardinal rule of crisis and risk communications – bureaucratic jargon and doublespeak tend to confuse the public and raise tension.
Consider the aftermath of his statement, that brought withering criticism from healthcare providers:
- The nation’s largest association of nurses interpreted it as making the nurse a scapegoat
- In several localities nurses began protesting outside their hospitals
- Political activists turned Frieden’s statement into a political attack
- Bloggers and online commentators also interpreted the statement as attacking nurses: “Considering 80% of nurses have reported getting 0 training and 100% of cleaning staffs at hospitals have had 0 training . . . blaming the staff is a mistake.”
Despite Frieden’s subsequent apology, we know from anecdotal evidence that the CDC has no credibility with nurses on the front lines in hospitals throughout the country.
As crisis expert Melissa Agnes writes about any crisis or risk management situation, “Make sure that those responsible for message approval in a crisis fully understand the need to stay away from jargon and technical language. Then, give them the task of making sure none slip by you or others before being published to your audiences in the heat of the moment.”
We agree that effective Crisis and Risk Communications require forethought and clarity:
- The need for speed has to be balanced against the necessity for being clear
- When your job is as much communicator in chief as it is head physician at the CDC, it’s important that your words convey the appropriate message without either false optimism or doomsday pessimism
- When you do speak, do so in plain terms that enlighten rather than confuse affected publics so that sound bites in the mainstream and social media aren’t so easily taken out of context and misinterpreted
- Make complex technical data understandable to lay audiences through use of relevant analogies and stories people can relate to
- Don’t speculate and leave the wrong impression; concerned audiences thirsty for information may draw the wrong conclusion