“For C.D.C.’s Walensky, a Steep Learning Curve on Messaging - Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has stumbled in explaining her policy decisions.”
– New York Times (Jan. 5, 2022)
Let’s face it. There was no public relations playbook for a 21st century global pandemic.
No so-called messaging expert could prepare for or anticipate the confusion, disruption and terror COVID-19 has brought to every home across the globe.
Nonetheless, after two years, one might think the messaging process at an organization like the CDC might have gotten easier and that the explanation of what Americans should do next about Omicron would be clearer and more succinct.
Long before the pandemic, major corporations and small businesses—not to mention governmental agencies—struggled to explain their positioning in a clear, concise and consistent way and not just in times of crisis. Ask a CEO what their company does, and you might get an explanation that is muddled, jargon-filled and inconsistent with what other executives in the same company say. Organizations grapple with the corporate version of the difficult question many of us have faced in job interviews: “So tell me about yourself.”
As a so-called messaging expert myself, I see otherwise bright, capable and passionate people come up short when it comes to explaining their policy positions, deep convictions and reasons for what they do and how they do it. That’s why people in the PR field are brought into companies every day. To put it into a sound bite, clear messaging ain’t easy.
The CDC has clearly stumbled in the last month as it has vacillated on quarantining and masking requirements and faced backlash from a confused public and media (which ironically does not like it when officials just “stay on message”). The agency needs to step up its efforts and build public trust—which it can do if the following steps are taken immediately:
• Conduct media coaching regularly (at least once a week—not occasionally). If this is being done at the CDC, it isn’t evident in the result yet. The agency should anticipate rightful media skepticism about new guidelines and protocols and have credible former journalists (who represent various political points of view) asking tough probing questions before “real” interviews take place. If journalists in mock sessions rip your sound bites to shreds, you’re not ready to face the public.
• Get on the same page. Anyone who is out in public discussing the pandemic on behalf of the Administration should be speaking with colleagues daily and reviewing talking points. For example, if one official suggests—and this just happened—that vaccines could be required on domestic flights, all related agency heads need to be aligned on that point before the concept is floated in the public and creates more confusion.
• Assume you have a tired, angry audience. When corporations are in the middle of a crisis, they need to factor in that public opinion is not on their side and message accordingly. The CDC and other federal agencies must communicate and shape sound bites with the idea they are speaking to a weary and distrustful public. Even many who are vaccinated and boosted have had enough. When public officials speak, they need to acknowledge that “this is confusing, and I know people are frustrated, and we may need to change our thinking again.”
• Repetition and brevity matter. “Keep calm and carry on,” “stop drop and roll” —keep it simple for the public to remember. “Five days, test at home, and you’re done.” Don’t give long explanations to an American public that has been through so much. Patience and attention spans are short.
• Avoid cliches. At this point, few people want to hear an overused “we’re in this together.” Assume cynicism and frustration. Humor, brevity, and acknowledging the other side of the aisle would go a long way.
The CDC has a chance to course correct, and it needs to do so now. We know that institutions at all different levels—private, public, federal, state, local—are facing enormous challenges of maintaining public trust and confidence. What is arguably the world’s leading health organization can’t afford to be grouped into that category of mistrusted organizations.
This crisis, and indeed the pandemic itself, will eventually end. But other crises will occur—and as has been said about pandemic preparedness itself, we need to be ready for future pandemics. Hopefully then, messages will be clear and there will be a playbook to be followed.
Seth Linden is president of Dukas Linden Public Relations.