The CDC’s Lack of Leadership in Crisis

Posted by on Oct 22, 2014 in ComLead, Organizational Leadership

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has long been a trusted source in disseminating information to protect Americans regarding health, safety and security threats both domestically and overseas. Their reputation has taken a substantial hit in the past several months however, with their inability to lead the public through crises. They’ve been accused of mislabeling and mishandling serious health concerns, most notably with the Ebola scare, sending many Americans into complete and total hysteria.

As a Master’s student stud4099404952_4b5209e01d_oying Communication & Leadership, I     think it’s necessary to take a look at what it means to be an effective leader in times of crisis.

First and foremost, a leader must directly confront the issue at hand and know their duty in addressing the concerns.  According to The Wall Street Journal article, Seven Lessons for Leading Through Crisis, the #1 lesson is “leaders must face reality, and reality starts with the person in charge. Leaders need to look themselves in the mirror and recognize their role in creating the problems.”

The CDC has undoubtedly created unnecessary panic amongst the public, and now it is up to them to take a hard stance in communicating the truth about how the disease is spread and what people need to do to protect themselves. The challenge for the CDC will be in developing messages that gets the public listening to what they need to hear.

Dr. Catherine Foster, who specializes in crisis communication, cites the theories of selective attention and selective reception when explaining the difficulty the CDC is experiencing in communicating messages through a cluttered market sphere. “When we are bombarded by thousands of media messages a day, selective attention helps us filter out the ones that don’t matter to us. The CDC needs to break through that barrier by finding the right time and the right place for message delivery.”

Many people have already formed their opinions about the CDC and the Ebola crisis. If the CDC wants to have any chance in winning the public back, they will have to take a different approach in communicating their messages. Dr. Foster says, “selective perception suggests that messages that make us uncomfortable will be ignored. The CDC needs to make uncomfortable news more palatable.”

How can the CDC make this uncomfortable topic more inviting?

  • Use Humor – Dr. Petty’s Elaboration Likelihood Model demonstrates the benefits of using humor when trying to get attention in a cluttered market filled with mixed messages
  • Simple Steps – The CDC needs to keep restating the same measures regarding hygiene we’ve been told since grammar school – wash your hands often, cover your mouth when coughing and sneezing, stay home if you have cold or flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, etc.)

The CDC could definitely benefit from taking a lesson in leadership, but they’re far from the only organization that needs to reevaluate their crisis communication methods. I think what’s happened with the CDC will be a wake up call to many – being proactive and strategic about your communication plan may end up saving you big time.

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