Crisis Communications at Work in NYC Ebola Case

Image: CBS News
Image: CBS News

Thursday night’s press conference in New York City to share information about the city’s first Ebola case was a demonstration of crisis communications in action. Dr. Craig Spencer, who had recently returned to New York after treating Ebola patients in Africa, tested positive for the disease late Thursday afternoon. At 9:00 p.m., New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and city health commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett went before the cameras to share what they knew with the public.

The death of Thomas Duncan from the disease in Dallas on Oct. 8 and the subsequent diagnoses of two nurses who treated him raised concerns that government and health authorities were in over their heads. Americans who were repeatedly told to remain calm found little solace in the confusion, silence and misinformation that came from officials—hallmarks of a poor crisis communications strategy.

New York City officials did not make this mistake. They exhibited key tenets of crisis communications.

  • Share what you know. Officials were able to piece together Spencer’s movements prior to his diagnosis. They also have reiterated just how Ebola is contracted and its symptoms.
  • Admit what you don’t know. It is still unclear just how many people Spencer came in contact with, but investigators are working to answer this question.
  • Show that you’re on the case. NYC officials have been training for just this type of emergency for some time, and they have a plan in place that they are following.
  • Project calm. By acting decisively and proactively in the early hours of this crisis, officials in New York have let the public know that they are pursuing a solution to the problem.

Unfortunately, an Ebola case popping up in New York City was probably inevitable considering the city’s status as a major international commercial and transportation hub. Up to this point, however, government and health officials have kept the lines of communication open in order to inform the public and keep panic from spreading.

Follow Richard Brownell: @RickBrownell