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  • Writer's pictureL. Darryl Armstrong

Preventing a Crisis: Ebola, Campus Riots, Pandemics – What Professionals Must Understand About

Regrettably, the Ebola crisis will continue to be a top of the page story for the next several months.  The conflicting messages given by the medical profession and the media have made sure of this.  The medical profession has created this crisis by providing experts who are not necessarily good communicators to communicate about the disease and the infected patients. Although doctors may be experts at medical issues, they are not necessarily good communicators with the media and the public at large.

Doctors are usually well experienced at diagnosing and treating disease.  However, few are experienced in talking to the media and the public.  As a result, while they don’t plan to create a crisis, they often do just that. This often occurs when there has not been adequate time taken to create key messages, trained on those messages and ensure that everyone is on message.

 For example, the medical profession and the President often contradict each other.

Obama says: “You Can’t Get Ebola Sitting Next to Someone on a Bus”.

CDC announces: “Avoid Public Transportation”. (

In his video to residents of West African countries experiencing Ebola outbreaks, President Obama dispensed advice on how to avoid the disease, “You cannot get it (Ebola) through casual contact like sitting next to someone on a bus”.

At the same time, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is advising Americans who travel to the Ebola-stricken nations to “avoid public transportation”.

Listeners must ask themselves which is the correct message? As this story has evolved, it is too reminiscent of the old Abbott-Costello routine of “Who’s on first”?

To avoid the crisis mentality, media training and practice is required for doctors (and all professionals who are going to speak to the media) so that they know how to respond when called upon to answer questions at a media briefing. Every doctor or designated spokesperson should be trained to follow the same rules. Some doctors and now even the President have stepped outside the “agreed to” principles of conduct during this crisis, and they and their employers and their audiences have suffered the consequences.

Most of us are familiar with the acronym HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and the rules that govern patient privacy. And we are familiar with the requirements to read and sign a form that clearly articulates what information can and can’t be released by your doctor. These Federal rules essentially keep a doctor or an employer of the health care facility from talking about a patient or an issue.

But when the issue is Ebola, E-coli or the Avian Flu, the media demands details, because of HIPAA, doctors often cannot provide these details. Doctors who are media trained and practiced can assist in preventing a crisis by sharing a carefully crafted answer with the media…an answer that explains the situation and the parameters around the answer.

The blog post at Gerard Braud Communications suggests that a media trained doctor can artfully reply, when asked about a patient’s condition during an outbreak of the Ebola virus, “Please understand that due to Federal law – the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – HIPAA – I am not permitted to discuss specific health conditions about our patient, and neither should the media share such information. I can in general say that a patient with the Ebola virus can be safely quarantined because the virus is not transmitted by breathing in the infection.   It can be transmitted only by contact with blood or other body fluids.”

Simply stated, reporters need a sound bite or a good quote. The key for crisis prevention managers is to write sound bite answers in advance for “tough questions” and then assist the doctor in learning how to masterfully deliver them. The “get on message and stay on message” concept is causing great difficulties with the current administration and its appointees.

We insist that our clients develop the “toughest of the tough” questions — those questions, which I call “keep us awake at night” — and that we write simple, easy to understand and communicate answers. The same principle is true when we assist clients with development of crisis plans. Prepare for the worst-case scenario and you will be able to handle anything.

Although doctors are highly trained in the medical field, they need advice, counsel and training before working with reporters. The same is true for any specialized profession be they engineers or bank presidents.

Professionals in any field will be well served to collaborate with their communicators and public relations teams well in advance of engaging in any media conference. In order to be successful in today’s world, professionals should obtain the information and practice their delivery before they perform in the media arena.


Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong is a crisis and emergency communications and management consultant. He can be reached at or 1.888.340.2006. Dr. Armstrong is available for speaking engagements and conducts training workshops. Visit his website at where you can find even more free resources including the FREE white paper The 11 Steps in Crisis Communications.

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