Dr. David LenihanDr. David Lenihan

Since COVID arrived in the U.S. in early 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided puzzling and potentially dangerous guidance to Americans who have sought answers regarding how to best navigate the pandemic. These messaging challenges could have been avoided if the agency's communications team followed the most basic best practices of crisis management.

"The CDC [needed] to be more transparent in the reasoning for [its messaging] changes," said Timothy Coombs, a professor in the Department of Communication of Texas A&M University. "It is okay to shift policies because of situational demands, but if people do not know why there has been a shift, the messaging becomes contradictory and confusing."

Founded in 1946, the CDC's mission has been to provide "health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and [to respond] when these arise." Throughout the 74 years prior to the onset of the pandemic, the CDC was a respected federal agency that represented America's most reliable, comprehensive and advanced thinking on infectious disease research and control.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '22 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
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But the CDC never faced a messaging challenge like the one that COVID created. Whereas in the past, distributing official press releases and conducting sedate media interviews about health-related topics were the primary endeavors of the agency's communications department, the mutating nature of the COVID virus created mayhem that the CDC's PR professionals could not keep pace with.

Areas of the CDC's pandemic messaging messiness included the following:

  • Making recommendations of the optimal mask type(s) to use based on their varying efficacy in protecting against the different strains of COVID.
  • Determining accurate guidelines for wearing masks on public transportation.
  • Providing the appropriate isolation lengths that would be medically sufficient to allow COVID patients to recuperate and protect their families/co-workers.
  • Explaining the contagiousness of the different strains of COVID.
  • Detailing the effectiveness of current vaccine types against the morphing virus strains that were infecting the populace.
  • Clarifying the lag time between initial COVID infection and virus detectability by commercially available quick tests.
  • Describing the effects of "long COVID" that were specific to the different virus strains
  • Explaining how long different virus strains lived on surfaces.

… just to name a few.

I'm not a PR pro. I'm the President of a medical school and the co-founder of a medical education technology company. But with a few quick clicks, I was able to unearth four smart messaging suggestions. They would have been useful for the CDC's team to follow, and they would also have been valuable to millions of Americans who were desperate for clear advice to help them better understand COVID.

Be proactive. According to media intelligence firm Alva, "tell people what you're going to do about the problem, then do it." The CDC waffled and backtracked on endless COVID-related topics, and unfortunately did not demonstrate the confidence that this tip required.

Be honest, incite trust. "Stories that you present to the media ought to be verified and as precise as they can be, under the given circumstances," said Reputation Today. "Being trustworthy, upright, and straightforward can go a long way." This is PR 101 stuff and didn't seem to be integrated into the CDC's M.O.

Have one message. "If you're not saying the same thing to all people, you're going to get yourself in trouble," said Andy Liuzzi, Executive Vice President of Crisis and Risk Management at Edelman. Mixed, multiple and murky messaging has been a hallmark of the CDC's COVID announcements.

Turn off the fan. "When the you-know-what hits the fan, the first rule of crisis management is to turn off the fan," said Kim Miller of Ink Link Marketing. "Put yourself in the consumers' shoes and ask, 'How would I feel if this happened to me?'"

Along with this superb direction, the CDC would have benefitted by doing something that skilled doctors and executives do when they don't have the answer to a question: they simply say, "I don't know."

  • "In adopting new communication strategies, [medical] students were able to say 'I don't know' because they realized they are still learning and value honesty in the patient-provider relationship," explained the medical research article "It's Okay to Say 'I Don't Know': Medical Students Use Transformative Thinking to Cope with Ambiguity and Uncertainty."
  • "Your willingness to admit when you don't have all the answers, and your curiosity to find them, will … enhance the view of your competence as a leader," said Gaurav Gupta of consulting firm Kotter International.

I have no doubt that, had the CDC followed the above guidance, more Americans would have been better informed about COVID as well as physically and mentally healthier. I'm also realistic: I recognize that a flawless CDC communications strategy would not have prevented the proliferation of, and belief in, wildly inaccurate COVID and vaccine misinformation on social media and at kitchen tables.

Moving forward—because the pandemic is far from over—the CDC's leadership should factor the above messaging standards into their communications efforts. They must honestly present the most accurate available information in a clear and concise manner. They need to admit if/when they're wrong, and they need to emphasize that their guidelines will be updated based on the latest scientific findings and the evolving nature of COVID. They need to be brave in the face of scrutiny from the media and resistance from business leaders. Most importantly, they need to speak the truth to Americans "regardless of the political consequences."


Dr. David Lenihan, Ph.D., J.D., FRSM is the CEO/Co-Founder of Tiber Health and the President of Ponce Health Sciences University.