Saturday, February 06, 2016

Sandman & Lanard On Zika Risk Communications


When it comes to designing effective risk communications, Dr. Peter Sandman & Dr. Jody Lanard are about as good as it gets – which is why their services have been used by corporations, organizations, and agencies around the globe – often in the midst of a crisis.

Their website is an invaluable repository of risk management advice, that quite frankly, should be second home for anyone involved in public relations or risk communications.

I’ve featured their writings more than a dozen times over the past decade, and when they see something amiss, they are never hesitant to point it out.  A few examples over the years:

CIDRAP Commentary: Sandman & Lanard On Ebola Crisis Communications Lessons
Sandman & Lanard On Ebola & Failures Of Imagination
NPR: Jody Lanard On Addressing Ebola Fears
Sandman & Lanard: Ebola Risk Communications

As seems to be happening with increasingly frequency in this 21st century, the world is faced with another new, highly uncertain, public health threat in the Zika virus. Its future course, like that of a CAT 5 hurricane lumbering far out to sea, teeters somewhere between fizzling out and making a devastating landfall.

No one - not the CDC, not the WHO, and certainly not this humble blogger - knows how this latest EID threat will play out. 

And like cadets taking the Kobayashi Maru test of Star Trek lore, public health agencies tasked with warning the public and preparing for Zika's arrival and impact are faced with a virtual no-win scenario.

Already, even before the full extent of Zika's impact is known, there are conflicting views over whether the CDC & WHO have oversold, or undersold, the threat.

Weighing in on all of this today are Peter Sandman and Jody Lanard in a long form essay that answers questions regarding the messaging from public health agencies on Zika's threat. While they find much to praise, they warn on some potential stumbling blocks ahead.

Follow the link for an illuminating read:

Zika Risk Communication: WHO and CDC Are Doing a Mostly Excellent Job So Far

(a January 31, 2016 email in response to a query
from Faye Flam of Bloomberg View)
Faye Flam’s February 1 article drew from this email.
Question from Faye Flam: In the case of Ebola, some public health officials expressed great certainty about the likely spread of the virus, though there were considerable unknowns. With Zika, again, are there unknowns that have been glossed over? Could the public health community be more straightforward with the press about the unknowns and the uncertainties?
Top U.S. public health officials have been extremely straightforward about Zika unknowns and uncertainties, calibrating their statements to convey their own levels of uncertainty to the public without overstatement or understatement, and without overconfidence.
CDC is doing spectacularly good uncertainty risk communication. The goal should be to create the same level of uncertainty in the audience as in the source. CDC’s Anne Schuchat and Lyle Petersen and NIAID Director Anthony Fauci are carefully conveying their own levels of uncertainty, neither overstating nor understating what is known and unknown about Zika.
And mainstream science reporters seem to be capturing that uncertainty pretty well in how they are quoting and paraphrasing these expert officials.  

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