Putting Ebola Into Context

October 17, 2014

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Striking a delicate balance between communicating a healthcare threat and managing public perceptions

“Rumours and panic are spreading faster than the virus,” said Dr Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organisation on Monday this week. In the same speech she called the Ebola outbreak “a crisis for international peace and security”.

While the deadly virus, which has a mortality rate of around 80 per cent without rapid treatment, is suddenly knocking on hospital doors of the Western world, just the mention of the word Ebola has generally well-informed and educated members of the public donning medial masks. Yes, an outbreak of Ebola certainly has the potential to spread worldwide, but the likelihood or risk of such an event occurring is much lower than alarming headlines would lead us to believe.

As medical teams work around the clock to manage the Ebola outbreak, healthcare communicators rise to their own challenges in an attempt to allay public fears and manage the accompanying half-truths that have the ability to spread like a pandemic in today’s digital world.

With media often presenting skewed facts and stats around the Ebola outbreak, public perceptions of the real risks a disease actually presents are fast distorting. It’s the sole role of the healthcare communicator to keep the actual impact of an outbreak in perspective, and work with the media to prevent an outbreak even more contagious than an epidemic – public hysteria.

If you follow the #Ebola chatter on Twitter there are many comments ranging from flippant sarcasm to pure panic, and unrealistic demands for all flights from Africa to be grounded. As this recent TRUE interview with Dr. William Schaffner, MD, the immediate past president of the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases correctly states: the most important element in an effective response is still early and honest communications.

With any crisis communications plan, health or otherwise, the key elements remain the same. Be transparent, be fast, educate your public, dismiss scare tactics, and keep your messaging consistent and clear. Reinforce the message that your organisation is ready, able and competent to manage an outbreak of any kind, let alone Ebola – and watch how public sentiment follows suit.

Messaging specifically related to Ebola treatment, planning, procedure and protocol should take centre stage, which will keep public perspective in check and empower them to challenge any wild reporting. Remember too that perspective is all important – the flu, tuberculosis and malaria kill more people and can be considered much more deadly, yet we live with them every day.

As unlikely it is that an Ebola outbreak does impact your audience, forewarned is forearmed. Is your crisis communication plan Ebola-ready? Now is the time to review your health crisis response plan and ensure you are ready to communicate an Ebola threat without causing public panic, and rather creating public confidence.