Traditional communication isn't enough: Use entertainment education to fight Ebola

Guest post by Andrea J. Simon, Ph.D., a former marketing, branding and culture change senior vice president at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan. She also is president and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants.

The World Health Organization declared the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in Africa an extraordinary event. Experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite crisis communication as critical in stemming the outbreak. The Health Communication Capacity Collaborative's Health COMpass has made social and behavior change communication materials publicly available.

My organization works with healthcare providers that need or want to change. Given human nature, what usually forces this change is a crisis, and what could be a bigger crisis than the Ebola virus now gripping the world's attention? How will U.S. hospitals respond? Are they prepared? Will they learn from the Dallas debacle, where inadequate communication as opposed to inadequate healthcare response led to panic, or repeat the same mistakes?

I just returned from Dallas, the then-U.S. epicenter of Ebola, and it was frightening. Travelers in the airport wore facemasks and blue gloves. Conversations were all about how serious the virus was, how poorly the staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital was prepared, and how woefully inept the CDC protocols were. The public's story--and boy, was this a time for storytelling--was a reflection of how the hospital had put us all at risk because they had "blown it."

Lessons learned: the "same old methods" aren't going to cut it this time

What was of particular interest to me as an anthropologist working with organizations trying to respond to this crisis, was that our own experts weren't communicating the right responses. Universally, they ignored the communication methods and behavioral modification strategies used to notable success in Africa. (Did they even investigate them?) While we needed press conferences and spin management, it was going to take more than traditional media to work this time.

With today's communication tools readily available, the Ebola conversation has taken off--and you as leaders f a healthcare facility need to quickly craft responses that inform, and calm, the populace. If you don't get it right, people will respond like they did in Dallas: With panic (fleeing the city) or anger (serious loss of faith in Texas Health Presbyterian).