I had the opportunity to recently attend the Health Conference at 1776’s Challenge Festival. The first part of my day was spent immersed in panel discussions that featured thought leaders whose end goal is to create a healthier world. The second part of my day was spent sitting on the edge of my seat while 20 health-focused start-ups from around the globe pitched their companies to the panel of judges.
Despite the excitement that pumped through me during the Shark Tank-esque portion of the event, my mind would continuously drift back to the “fireside chat” given by Ronald Klain, aka the “Ebola Czar,” whose role is was to keep the bureaucratic gears turning to efficiently and effectively foster solutions to the already raging epidemic.
Throughout his talk, he often underscored the importance of communications in helping control the outbreak. He emphasized how effective communication–both internal and external–helped provide a rapid response, build medical infrastructure, coordinate across government agencies, and manage public fear.
I was particularly interested in the discussion of how communications acts as both a mediator and a (often, unintentional) propagator of fear.
Deborah Kotz effectively summarized this phenomenon in the context of the Ebola crisis in an article she authored for the Boston Globe, “An estimated 36,000 Americans are expected to die of the flu this year, but, if history is any indication, the majority of us will skip the recommended yearly vaccine. We’d likely, however, be lining up around the block to get an Ebola immunization if one was available — even though only one person has died of the infection in this country so far.”
In health communication, we often have to walk the fine line between sharing critical information without sparking irrational concerns. This high-wire act is even more important in the age of social media where misinformation can spread like wildfire. Our challenge of health communicators is to 1) be proactive without inadvertently adding fuel to the fire and 2) As Mr. Klain explained, acknowledge to the public that their fear is normal to an extent, while providing information to mitigate the fears to a realistic level. Communications as a mediator of fear, however, often comes after the fire is already burning bright.
Mr. Klain’s talk affirmed the importance of thinking strategically before conveying health and risk messages to the public. Know your audience, know how to reach them, and perhaps most importantly know how to shift your tone to avoid creating a culture a fear.
New career goal? Become an expert tight rope walker – one that can walk the line between effective behavior change communications without instilling irrational fear in those I am trying to reach (à la homemade hazmat suit).