I spent four years as the leader of the Health Communication Research Branch in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during both the Clinton and Bush administrations. My lead agency was the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). I learned a great deal about the importance of risk communication particularly when those messages come from government leaders. People who are good at risk communication tend to keep their jobs while those who aren’t, don’t. And with good reason. If you are supposed to be a health and safety expert, you should know how to talk about it.
Last night I witnessed a weak example of risk communication from a government leader. Katie Couric of CBS News interviewed Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary for Health and Human Services. You can follow this link to first read a transcript of the brief interview, then click on the interview image on their website to watch the video. I’d encourage you to do so.
While Secretary Sebelius projects an approachable expertise, her responses to Couric’s questions are good examples of weak risk communication. Couric often phrases a question that asks for a direct, clear, “yes” or “no,” while also expecting elaboration. Yet in virtually every case, Sebelius answers the question with a long, careful, and complex response that tries to be all things to all people at all times and never clearly answers the question. It sounds more like she is running for office and less like a health and safety expert.
The problem is particularly acute given the topic: Vaccination for swine flu. Vaccines are controversial health programs that generate great fear and worry in many parents. While the overwhelming majority of most people understand the value of vaccinations in general, each particular case is cause for serious consideration.
Sebelius needs immediate coaching from risk communication trainers. She has great presence, has an excellent voice, and shows great calmness. She looks like a trustworthy leader who also knows what she’s talking about.
But she needs to take the next step and master the patterns of talk required for effective risk communication. Learn and rehearse simple, direct statements. Answer immediately with short, clear, and decisive statements, then add clarifications. Address negative issues with sensitivity and respect, but provide correct counterarguments. Risk communication is not like management communication.
This is not a trivial matter. Weak risk communication can make a bad situation worse for everyone including yourself. A painful example to consider is Dr. Jeff Koplan who was the Director of the CDC during the anthrax attacks of 2001. Koplan was the initial face and voice of the Federal government during those scary weeks and he was not an effective risk communicator, despite his outstanding credentials, reputation, and experience as a public health researcher and leader. He didn’t know how to talk about the risk. His words tended to increase fear, doubt, and worry. Not only was he replaced as the lead spokesperson (by Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes for Health), but Koplan resigned as CDC Director just a few weeks later.
Risk communication is a difficult form of persuasion and it requires training, practice, and experience. While it is similar to other forms of persuasion like management and leadership and to a certain extent, teaching, it has its own unique qualities that need specific study.