In late February, coronavirus was starting to pierce the US zeitgeist. Garland Stansell, the PRSA chair and a veteran health care communicator, told us then that producing a consistent message is critical to communications during a health care crisis. Regardless of the platform you choose, Stansell said, speak with one voice.
Unfortunately, for some, that best practice seems forgotten. Perhaps the most obvious example of conflicting narratives sharing space, and confusing the public, occurs daily during the White House briefing. Last evening's offered the most visible and egregious example.
It included the spectacle of seeing the president trying to get a trio of doctors to accept his point of view about coronavirus. None did.
One-hundred twenty-five words into last night’s briefing, the president said, “I…want to mention a man who’s done a very good job for us: Dr. Robert Redfield. He was totally misquoted in the media on a statement about the fall season and the virus. Totally misquoted. I spoke to him. He said it was ridiculous.”
The story in question was veteran reporter Lena Sun’s Washington Post article. She quoted the CDC director as saying, “There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be much—even more difficult than the one we just went through. And when I’ve said this to others, they’ve kind of put their head back, they don’t understand what I mean. We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.”
THE PRESIDENT: "[Redfield] was talking about the flu and corona coming together at the same time.” Next, the president tried to tamp down that prospect, saying, “And corona could be just some little flare-ups that we’ll take care of. We’re going to knock it out. We’ll knock it out fast."
The president then asked Dr. Redfield to address the press on this issue. Dr. Redfield said his message was misunderstood. The reason for discussing the flu and coronavirus possibly existing simultaneously next winter, he said, was to encourage every American to get a flu shot.
DR REDFIELD: “This spring that we just went through—February—we had a benefit of having the flu season ended, so we could use all our flu surveillance systems to say, “Whoops, this is coronavirus. We need to focus.” Next fall and winter, we’re going to have two viruses circulating, and we’re going to have to distinguish between which is flu and which is the coronavirus.
And so the comment that I made: It’s more difficult. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be more impossible. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be more, as some people have said, “worse.” It just means it’s going to be difficult because we have to distinguish between the two.”
Eventually, Dr. Redfield broke. “I’m accurately quoted in the Washington Post,” an exasperated, sweating Redfield told the White House press corps.
PR Takeaway: It’s not a best PR practice to parse words with the media.
If you want to issue a Call to Action, do so. Dr. Redfield said he wanted to encourage Americans to get their flu shots. He should have said so. Directly, simply.
More PR Takeaways: If you have a problem with an article, it's probably best not to retweet it (see below). In addition, if you retweet it, make sure to indicate why you have an issue with the article.
.@CDCgov will soon issue guidance for state and local governments on how they can ease #COVID19 mitigation efforts - moving from current guidance to a phased way to support a safe reopening of America. Read more in @washingtonpost: https://t.co/bWXgznaVcF
— Dr. Robert R. Redfield (@CDCDirector) April 22, 2020
Correcting the Correction
Later Dr. Redfield said he was upset with the headline not, as the president noted, the quote in the article. The headline read: "CDC Director Warns Second Wave of Coronavirus is Likely to be Even More Devastating."
PR Takeaway: Know your goals. Redfield and Trump apparently wanted to pounce on the article's headline. They should have said so at the outset.
The Fall of COVID-19
What happened next, though, goes directly to the opening advice about speaking with one voice.
The president took a stance that COVID-19 was unlikely to return in the fall. He could not get his doctors to agree with him. He tried first with Dr. Redfield.
THE PRESIDENT: “And you may not even have corona coming back [in the fall], just so you understand. Doctor [Redfield], would you like to explain that?”
DR REDFIELD: “No.”
The president tried with Dr. Deborah Birx.
THE PRESIDENT: "And, Doctor, wouldn’t you say there’s a good chance that COVID will not come back?"
DR BIRX: "We don’t know —"
THE PRESIDENT: "And if it does come back, it’s in a very small, confined area that we put out. Go ahead."
Birx would not agree. Instead she said this:
DR BIRX: "Well, the great thing is we’ll be able to find it earlier this time. And I think that’s what we’re talking about."
Go Down Swinging
The president would not give up. After Dr. Birx failed to concede that coronavirus will not return or that if it does, it will be small and easily defeated, the president continued to push his contrary point.
THE PRESIDENT: "And if it comes back, though, it won’t be coming back in the form that it was."
PR Takeaway: Stay in your lane. The president is not a doctor. He should avoid making in-the-weeds statements about the path of a virus.
Finally, much later in the briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci contradicted the president's view that the virus might not return in the fall.
DR. FAUCI: "...We will have coronavirus in the fall. I am convinced of that..."
The point that the doctors were emphasizing was, as Dr. Fauci said, “What happens [in the fall]...will depend on how we’re able to contain [the virus] when it occurs. And what we’re saying is that, in the fall, we will be much, much better prepared to do the kind of containment compared to what happened to us this winter.”
This article is part of PRNEWS' daily COVID-19 coverage, click here to see the latest updates.