Mishandled anthrax samples. Mishandled avian influenza samples. And now, a case of Ebola in Dallas.
It’s been a tough year for the CDC. What can the beleaguered Atlanta-based agency do to enhance its image?
“CDC faces a couple of dilemmas it doesn’t control,” said Smith, who is based in Louisville, Ky. “First of all, most people don’t pay a bit of attention to whatever the CDC is dealing with … until it’s their family, their child, their spouse, that may have a healthcare problem.”
“So when something does go wrong, and the media or social media pick up on it, it doesn’t get as much attention today as it did 5 years ago, but then when something happens in your town … Then people come alive, and they usually react very strongly and very negatively,” he said.
Right now, the agency faces two equally bad possibilities, according to Eric Dezenhall, founder of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm in Washington.
“If there is an Ebola outbreak, it will be declared to be mismanaged by CDC, but if there is not, they’ll be accused of scaring the public by talking about it,” said Dezenhall, the author of “Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal.”
Experts acknowledge that while the CDC is certainly facing a number of challenges at present, it has not gone so far as to lose its brand. But the Ebola situation has created a perfect storm of disinformation and distrust.
“Unfortunately, the public isn’t really aware of what the CDC does,” said Chris Zaenger, president of Z Management Group, a consulting firm, and president-elect of the National Society of Certified Healthcare Business Consultants. In addition, people don’t want to hear what Ebola actually is, preferring instead to create a more sensationalized narrative, added Zaenger, in Elgin, Ill.
The explosion of social media has certainly contributed to this stream of misinformation, noted Josh Zeitz, executive vice president and deputy corporate practice head at MWW Group, a public relations firm in New York City.
Twenty years ago, the CDC would have taken control of the story, Zeitz said. But social media has forced the CDC to be “reactive rather than informative.”
Zeitz added that “steady erosion in the trust of public institutions” has also played a role in the CDC’s current predicament. The CDC is facing the same challenges from a skeptical public as doctors, hospitals, public officials, and the press.
In addition to a lack of trust, the public also holds the healthcare industry to a much higher standard, according to Zaenger. When charged with protecting something as important as health, hospitals and public health organizations are not allowed to be fallible.
“We expect [healthcare organizations] to be perfect, but we do not respect them as if they are,” Zaenger said.
The next few weeks are crucial for the CDC, because the agency now needs to demonstrate that its assessment of the Ebola situation is correct, Zeitz said. He pointed to how emergency response teams in New York City and Boston handled the terrorist attacks. “Successful management of a public crisis leads to lasting public faith.”
And if an Ebola outbreak doesn’t occur in the U.S., that will be good news not only for the public but also for the CDC, according to Dezenhall. “If we don’t [have an outbreak], this will recede from the news and we’ll be on to the next crisis.”
Alicia Daugherty, practice manager for research and insights at The Advisory Board Company, in Washington, explained that transparency is always the best strategy for any healthcare organization, especially when answering questions.
“The most important thing is a consistent message that shows you are taking your constituents seriously,” Daugherty said.
Acknowledging mistakes may also help to regain the public’s goodwill. Zeitz pointed out that the public is most incensed by any perceived “lack of candor” or responses that sound like “self-preservation.”
Zaenger agreed: “Be honest, be believable, and tell the truth. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can stop the cycle.”
The CDC’s greatest advantage in this situation is its reputation as a trusted organization, the experts said. If the agency can prove to the public that it can assert control, the public will begin to trust it again. Zaenger even wondered if CDC officials could use the power of social media to their advantage — “#cdcisgreat, and move on.”
News Editor and story co-author Joyce Frieden is a second cousin of Thomas Frieden, MD, the director of the CDC. She did not speak to him for this story and communicates with him only occasionally.