From MSNBC to Fox News, outlets across the media spectrum are critiquing CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and her agency’s handling of communications around the COVID crisis. While CDC has masterfully mobilized to track variants and vaccine data, there is no doubt that communications is a key part of care with which it struggles mightily. Evaluating the CDC director’s public statements and PR savvy has quickly become part of the news cycle.
CNN recently shared:
“[The CDC’s independent media briefing on Friday, January 7] comes as the agency is facing a barrage of criticism over confusion stemming from its new guidelines on isolation for people who test positive for Covid-19. Beyond Walensky’s messaging struggles, the agency has faced criticism for months over its at-times confusing guidance surrounding the pandemic, with one former senior Biden administration official saying the agency appears to be ‘overthinking’ its communications.”
During crises, we expect economic, scientific and policy minds will have the information and wisdom to guide us forward, but a novel virus is bringing us face-to-face with a frightening reality — many experts don’t have easy or immediate answers. They don’t know with certainty when we’ll go back to work, what treatments are best, or the degree to which vaccines prevent or just reduce COVID severity.
So, in the absence of clear answers, consumers readily dismiss experts weighing the evidence in favor of those who speak with conviction to their political or economic points of view.
CDC Issues management and crisis communicators should keep in mind that audiences’ patience with government experts and noted scientists has worn thin. When the gurus of virology, biology, infectious disease and other medical disciplines don’t provide consistent answers, the media taps perfectly polished and ready-to-go TV pundits waiting in the wings. Some of them offer suppositions as though they were facts; these appeal to consumers’ urgent need for information, junk or otherwise. Others are “pundits with a cause” spouting ideologies aimed at satisfying their “heels-dug-in” followers in red or blue tribes.
In these times of politicizing science, media salivate at creating swirl. It’s great for ratings and sweeps. But in this media landscape where outlets give opinion and supposition the same weight as fact, even a public health communicator as gifted as the incredible Dr. Fauci has lost his public-standing mojo.
ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL
Can we live with ambiguity? The short answer may be “no.” We have become a nation of consumers that expect, if not demand, resolution now. Deferring gratification is becoming an unknown concept, and our desire for immediate resolution works against CDC ability to help the public understand open-ended situations — and COVID is a very big unresolved situation. When “now” is all that matters, people look to fill the information gap like a hungry teenager gobbling bags of junk food.
In this void, everyone with a Twitter account and a hefty-sized following — whether consumer, nurse, physician, policy wonk or news commentator — has become an influencer engaged in the national conversation. And, when the CDC Director speaks, these influencers are ready to go into action, either amplifying CDC messages or critiquing them and the manner in which they were delivered. CDC must work to tap into that influencer energy to create legions of allies, not armies of critics.
CNN reports that CDC Director Walensky and her senior staff are crafting new communications guidance with a close-knit group of advisors. This is certainly efficient but bound to result in another communications problem. Potential allies shut out tend to be naysayers.
Effective public health communication is not simply about “what you say,” it’s about how the audience thinks, feels and responds. Many voices working in unison at the same time across national and local media create message critical mass. Good communication presents truthful information, employs an understanding of human nature and seeks to find common ground.
Technology is part of the future game plan too. Just as political parties send text messages to their minions, CDC must reach directly to the nation’s citizens in their homes.
TIME TO PARTNER WITH INFLUENCERS
The omicron variant has thrown a monkey wrench into the public’s expectation that things are getting better. It’s disappointing, but we need to embrace the uncertainty we face. It is not a societal norm to turn to people who “don’t know.” That lack of comfort creates a situation in which almost 50 percent of our society disregards science and turns a blind eye to news reports about ERs overflowing with very ill, largely unvaccinated people. In this climate of distrust and an increasingly inward-facing worldview, getting the public on board with vaccination and masking efforts is pushing a rock up a hill that keeps getting higher.
To make people more comfortable with uncertainty, CDC must create a task force of willing partners — third-party health organizations, policymakers and public figures, including celebrities — who recognize that this fluid situation requires many people to tailor messages to specific audiences. It’s fruitless to direct communication strategy toward a 90% vaccination state and then believe the same approach can be applied to a region just tipping 60%. Consumers need to hear from trusted sources. That may not be the CDC Director or President Biden’s advisor Dr. Fauci. It might be a minister empowered and trained to convey to parishioners — “choose life.”
CREATE ALLIES WITH PARALLEL MESSAGES
When times get tough, it’s natural to circle the wagons. The CDC cannot keep people out of its planning room. That will not work.
Learning how to tap into thought leaders willing to help is part of successful campaigning. It is time to pull together the major players in healthcare delivery — hospital presidents, medical associations, infectious disease experts, and the popular physicians and health commentators who have become media darlings. These powerful voices can then speak as national and local media go-to experts. They don’t have to use the same words — but they must share a common purpose to reach consumers’ hearts and minds.
It is a complex situation. CDC has to find ways to tailor the message to many different audiences and regions. Just as many groups send their followers short call-to-action texts, CDC has to do a better job using omnichannel outreach.
There is power in each communicator saying: “I just spoke with the CDC Director this morning on this subject” and then offering their unique words based on a common theme. Rallying to the same goal prevents message fragmentation. Meharry Medical College’s Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, innovation theorist John Nosta, Walmart’s Dr. Cheryl Pegus and WebMD’s Dr. John Whyte are among many likely counselors who are dedicated to patient care and can influence the public with a unique voice.
There is also an abundance of athletes who reject the jaw-dropping comments of misguided anti-vaxxer counterparts. These influencers should be empowered to share their vaccination status as well as the facts about vaccination. We need a full-scale campaign — not one-off celebrity appearances and statements. While many will not be swayed, we must do everything we can to reach those who could be won over as the situation — and opinion — continues to morph.
IT’S TIME TO MOVE FORWARD
CDC’s current communications approach serves no one’s interests and continues to lead to fear, confusion and mistrust.
Leaning on inside-the-beltway political communications consultants is not the answer. CDC Director Walensky should open the door to a team of seasoned health communication professionals and private-sector medical leaders instead of appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or spending time with Democratic party media consultants. A wider variety of communicators must be engaged if CDC is to reach an increasingly detached and skeptical public.
Let’s forget “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” or bringing in another quarterback. Now is a time for everyone to think about collaboration and collective success. We are better than we think.