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Ebola & Risk Communication: An Analysis of President Obama’s Weekly Address


Ebola & Risk Communication: An Analysis of President Obama’s Weekly Address

Ebola & Risk Communication: An Analysis of President Obama’s Weekly Address
November 26, 2014

Editor’s Note: The following blog is an analysis of President Obama’s weekly address posted on Oct 18, 2014, which focused on ebola, and can be viewed here . The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's own. 

It would be impossible to talk about risk communication this year without making ebola the focus of that talk. Ebola communication has been everywhere. In fact, the stats, the stories, and the timeline have been so prevalent in the mediascape, that I exclude their discussion from my blog post. (But, if you need a refresher, check out CNN’s “Ebola Fast Facts”).
 
Coming into the month of November, though, I think it’s fair to say that the media hype has died down a bit. There are likely a few reasons for this. In Canada, one of those reasons might be the media attention given to Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was fatally shot while standing guard at Ottawa’s National War Memorial. The whole Jian Ghomeshi spectacle has also swallowed up media space, especially in the social sphere. While the media’s attention does naturally and necessarily shift, these two events were rather sensational and very Canadian, resulting in ebola being pushed further down the story lineup.
 
A more global reason for the media die-down of ebola might be the simple fact that the initial “event” is over and communication is now in a stage of maintenance. This would be Stage Three in the Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) model, developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Reynolds & Seeger, 2005).
 
For those not familiar with CERC, it is a five-stage model that “assumes that crises will develop in largely predictable and systematic ways: from risk, to eruption, to clean-up and recovery on into evaluation” (Reynolds & Seeger, 2005, p. 51).
 
We are mostly past Stage Two (Initial Event), in which communication to the public is rapid. Yet we are not quite at Stage Four (Resolution), of which “remediation, recovery, and rebuilding efforts” (Reynolds & Seeger, 2005, p. 52) are a part- though you could argue that some elements of this stage are occurring now.
 
So what is involved in the Maintenance stage? Some of the features include communication that seeks to facilitate: more accurate public understanding of ongoing risks; correction of any misunderstandings; and ongoing explanation and reiteration of self-efficacy and personal response activities (Reynolds & Seeger, 2005).
 
And who better to address the public than Barack Obama? (And no, I don’t just mean the US public; Obama’s global influence is irrefutable). He even has a video directly addressing “the people of West Africa”.
 
This, however, is not the video I want to focus on. The video I want to focus on is a weekly address by Obama that was published on October 18th, 2014. And I want to focus on it for two reasons. Firstly, it is well-situated in the Maintenance stage. Secondly, it exhibits many of the ten best practices in crisis communication that Seeger (2006) identifies based on his analysis of recommendations from a panel of crisis communication experts. Let’s look at six of these best practices.
 
1. Listen to the public’s concerns and understand the audiences
Obama understands that Americans are worried. He also understands that these worries are not warranted, which is why he emphasizes that three cases of ebola out of a population of over 300 million people is not, in fact, an epidemic. He tells the audience in a very direct manner to “keep this in perspective” and offers an example that should raise more concern: the thousands of Americans who die of the flu each year.
 
Methods of transmitting ebola are reviewed, and Obama offers his own experience as proof that the disease is not easily transmitted when he mentions that he’s met and hugged people who have treated ebola patients, as well as an ebola survivor- and he is fine and healthy.
 
Obama knows that some Americans think that ebola can be contained by sealing off West Africa; he shoots this idea down, explaining why it would make things worse. Along with demonstrating an understanding of the public’s concerns, the above points also serve to provide the audience with a more accurate understanding of risk.
 
2. Partnerships with the public
An obvious recognition of the public’s role is demonstrated in the statement: “…meeting a public health challenge like this isn’t just a job for government. All of us, citizens, leaders, the media, have a responsibility and a role to play.”
 
The use of “we” throughout the speech reinforces the idea of a government-public partnership, especially in the statements towards the end of the speech.
 
3. Honesty, candor and openness
Obama is honest when he says that ebola is a serious disease and is also honest in explaining what Americans can expect (fighting the disease will take time; it’s possible that more isolated cases will pop up in America).
 
4. Collaborate and coordinate with credible sources
On two occasions, Obama emphasizes that the ebola response must be guided by science and facts. However, he doesn’t reference his sources when describing the American ebola cases or when explaining how the disease is transmitted- but does he really need to? I think most people assume his consultants are reliable. Later, though, Obama mentions the CDC and its new ebola rapid response teams. He also talks about sharing lessons learned with hospitals, as well as screening passengers at airports. It’s clear that plenty of collaboration and coordination is occurring. Judging from this particular speech, we wouldn’t really know if there is any incoordination, though to think that coordination is flawless would be naïve.
 
5. Communicate with compassion, concern and empathy
Compassion, concern, and empathy are communicated when Obama states that his thoughts and prayers are with the two American nurses who contracted ebola and that everything was being done to give them the best care possible.
 
6. Messages of self-efficacy
This is interesting. Obama provides advice, but doesn’t separate himself from his audience. He states that we can’t give in to hysteria or fear, and we must be guided by science. These are clearly actions he wants his audience to take, but never does Obama say you should do this or you should do that. It is quite effective.
 
Obama is effective. His ability to pause at the right moments and to use the right tone of voice to convey sympathy in some instances and authority in others, makes him engaging and easy to believe. His speech is very well-organized and structured. Obama tells his audience what he’s going to accomplish with his speech and provides them with signposts (a numbered list of his main points)- a technique suggested by Novis (2004).
 
So what can we take from this as public health practitioners? And what are some recommendations for improved communications practice?
 
Well, as a budding public health professional, this is what I take: It is very important to follow best practices in all forms of communication, not just risk communication. Clear messages that connect with the audience and evidence that is backed by credible sources are crucial. Obama can get away with not citing every piece of information he uses, but we probably can’t! (Check out my Sources list as an example of what we are accountable for). Furthermore, it is important to actively seek out what the best practices are. Models can become outdated pretty quickly, and even if they don’t, certain models might be better suited to your message than others. Do your research!
 
Finally, does this budding public health professional actually have some advice for the president of the United States? Indeed! Firstly, although Obama explains that 3 cases is not an epidemic, he doesn’t use the opportunity to educate the public on what an actual epidemic would be. So if in three weeks, there are suddenly 50 cases of ebola in America, what would people think? Secondly, Obama uses deaths from the flu as a way to calm the public’s fears about ebola. Even though this calming is important, the flu and ebola are different, and these differences should be made clear. Thirdly, there are no links for the audience to click on to learn more about ebola. Well, not true. YouTube commenters provide many links, some of them being completely irrelevant. This video was published by The White House- the public relies on them for information, and that information should be there.
 

Sources
 
CBC News. (2014, November 5). Jian Ghomeshi lawsuit dismissal sought by CBC. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/jian-ghomeshi-lawsuit-dismissal-sought-by-cbc-1.2824814
 
CNN Library. (2014, November 1). Ebola fast facts. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/11/health/ebola-fast-facts/index.html
 
Novis, M. (2004). Organizing a Speech. In Canadian Public Speaking (pp. 100-113). Toronto: Prentice-Hall.
 
Reynolds, B., & Seeger, M. W. (2005). Crisis and emergency risk communication as an integrative model. Journal of Health Communication, 10, 43-55.
 
Seeger, M. W. (2006). Best practices in crisis communication: An expert panel process. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 34(3), 232-244.
 
The White House. (2014, October 18). Weekly address: What you need to know about ebola [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u08u8GA_rg
 
Tucker, Erika. (2014, October 28). Cpl. Nathan Cirillo laid to rest in Hamilton. Global News. Retrieved from http://globalnews.ca/news/1637171/how-to-watch-the-funeral-for-ottawa-shooting-victim-nathan-cirillo/
 
U.S. Department of State. (2014, September 2). President Obama’s message on the ebola virus [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFHEbYLmEuE
 
 


About the writer

Renira Narrandes is in her second year of the Health Promotion (MPH) program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto and is also a CIHR Fellow in Public Health Policy. Her interests include chronic disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental health, topics she also explored when completing her MSc. in occupational therapy (2011) and her MA in journalism (2008). Renira is proud to be: born in South Africa, a poet, and a former international debater. Contact her at  reniranarrandes@mail.harvard.edu or follow her on Twitter @Renira_N.

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