Splintered Ebola messaging frustrates many

With Sunday’s news that a health care worker in Dallas has contracted the deadly infection, would one voice leading the charge be helpful?

Opinions, questions, criticism, and comments continue to blanket traditional and social media.

The unidentified woman who helped treat Thomas Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas is being treated for Ebola. Duncan died last week at the Dallas hospital following a stay in Liberia.

Dr. Tom Frieden, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that while attending to Duncan, the health care worker had been dressed in full protective gear, as protocol dictates. Frieden was interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation”;others in Texas released separate statements and held a press conference.

“It’s important that while this is obviously bad news, it is not news that should bring about panic,” says Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins. “We have a strategy to monitor this and we will go to that strategy to keep the community safe.” Also, leaders at Texas Presbyterian say they are triple-checking their full compliance with updated CDC guidelines and are continuing to monitor all staff who had some role in Duncan’s care. [Read Ragan’s new white paper on how Emory University Hospital successfully handled the first Ebola patient in the U.S.]

Many are doubtful about how the crisis is being managed, as was seen on Twitter on Sunday afternoon: But let’s take a step back without pointing fingers.

What can marketing and PR pros in health care take away from a story that’s coming at us from multiple high level sources?

At any given time, we’re getting information from the CDC, the hospital, the City of Dallas, Harris County health officials, the Texas State Health Department, the U. S. Customs and Border Protection, and the White House, among others.

Larry Copeland’s article on USAToday.com says this problematic messaging is the result of a splintered national response.

He asks, “Who is in charge of Ebola?”

With the confirmation of a U.S. surgeon general in limbo, the CDC has emerged as the standard-bearer—and sometimes the scapegoat—on Ebola, Copeland says. Public health is the purview of the states, and as the nation expects more Ebola cases, some experts contend that the U.S. is not up to the challenge.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says, “One of the things we have to understand is the federal, state and local public health relationships. Public health is inherently a state issue. The state really is in charge of public health at the state and local level. It’s a constitutional issue. The CDC can’t just walk in on these cases. They have to be invited in.”

Without the luxury of time to restructure the organizational chart of the federal government, how can marketing and PR professionals in health care work through the complex messaging?

What would Seth Godin do? International best-selling author and marketing leader Seth Godin has a different perspective on the marketing of an epidemic.

“Education—clear, fact-based and actionable education—is the single most effective thing we can do during the early stages of a contagion. Diseases (and ideas) spread because of the social structures we have created.” Godin says it’s tempting to panic, or to turn away, or to lock up or isolate everyone who makes us nervous. He urges the messengers and media to do better, noting that panic, like terror, is also a virus that spreads.

Godin is critical of self-serving media outlets, writing that attention-seeking media voices take all of us down.

We have an urgent and tragic medical problem, but we also have a marketing problem, says Godin. ​

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