“MY DOC HAS EBOLA.” That’s what the New York Post headline screamed after Dr. Craig Spencer, a recent Doctors Without Borders volunteer in Guinea (and specialist in international emergency medicine at Columbia University-New York Presbyterian Hospital), was diagnosed with Ebola here in New York.
The headline screamed hysteria and the public ate it up.
Despite the fact that any reputable news source notes that Ebola cannot be spread by casual contact with the victim. Ebola is spread by very close contact with the victim—i.e., handling body fluids of the victim.
Despite the fact that no one close to Dr. Spencer, not even his live-in fiancée, seems to have come down with Ebola.
Despite the fact that two nurses suspected of having Ebola have been released from quarantine. Neither had Ebola, and both had treated a Liberian man diagnosed with Ebola who died on Oct. 8.
But the hysteria would have us believe that anyone who comes in even casual contact with an Ebola victim (and in a city of 8 million, how would you know for sure?) is vulnerable—despite all evidence to the contrary. It recalls scares related to H1N1 or even AIDS.
And it sells newspapers.
To some extent we’ve brought this crisis on ourselves.
Standard protocol for crisis communications management is to put out accurate information quickly so the public comes to you for information. If you delay, if you hedge, the rumor-mongers take over and you find yourself in the position of having to quash the rumors and disinformation before you can provide the facts to those who need it.
The federal government, CDC and NIH have been warning us for months about Ebola. But there has been conflicting and contradictory information about how the disease is spread and whether or not people who have been exposed to Ebola victims should be quarantined if they show no signs of the disease.
In a recent call with reporters, CDC director Tom Freiden said: “if you’re a member of the traveling public and are healthy, should you be worried that you might have gotten it by sitting next to someone? The answer is no. Second, if you’re sick, and you may have Ebola, should you get on a bus? The answer to that is also no. You might become ill; you might have a problem that exposes someone around you.”
New York Governor Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Christie used the Craig Spencer case to hold their own joint press conference—without consulting the federal government or even New York Mayor DeBlasio—in which they ignored CDC guidelines and mandated quarantines for people who have been exposed to Ebola (or victims of Ebola) as well as people who recently travelled to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. In Georgia (home of the CDC) Governor Deal updated the state’s monitoring policy for travelers returning from the most affected region of Africa, adding measures that go beyond what the CDC recommends.
The problem here seems to be mismanagement of crisis communications because the authorities are not speaking with one voice and the public is confused. This is how stories like “My Doc Has Ebola” gain so much traction.
Crisis communications requires a proactive, unified approach—getting ahead of the problem before it becomes a problem; having one source for reliable information; getting accurate information out there as early and often as necessary and making sure the public is aware of and informed about it.
By failing to do that, you will find yourself in a position of playing catch-up while fear-mongers continue to spread disinformation, fan the flames and seize the day.