The last thing an organization wants to be known for in a crisis is “muddled messaging.” But that’s exactly what happened to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week as the agency faced a barrage of criticism from the public, media, the American Medical Association, and late-night talk show hosts.
“The country is in chaos, so what we need is clear guidance from the CDC,” Stephen Colbert said in Wednesday night’s monologue. The line was a set-up for a punchline Colbert didn’t have to write. He simply summarized the CDC’s latest guidance, shortening the need for isolation for those who test positive for COVID from 10 days to five.
Colbert said, “People who have recovered from the virus and have isolated for at least five days can take a rapid test if they want, but they don’t have to, and those who test positive after five days from their initial test should isolate for another five days. People who test negative or don’t get tested can go back to work as long as they wear a mask.”
Colbert’s audience laughed, but it wasn’t funny to the American Medical Association. The association called the CDC’s announcement “confusing and counterproductive.” After reading the new recommendation, an anchor on CNN said, “If I did a bad job explaining what the guidance is, it’s not my fault.”
Some of the harshest criticism came in a front-page story in The New York Times under the headline: “Fumbled Communications Cloud C.D.C. Covid Policy.” According to the article, “the C.D.C.’s recommendations are sometimes so confusing or abruptly modified that they seem more like drafts than fully vetted proclamations.”
On Friday, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky held a media briefing for the first time in months. She acknowledged hearing the criticism and promised more frequent briefings. “This is hard, and I am committed to improve how we communicate to the American public,” she said.
Walensky makes a fair point. Communicating simple, clear, and concise messages in the middle of a complex and fast-moving crisis is extraordinarily difficult. I’ve worked behind the scenes with CEOs and world leaders on a range of communication challenges from nationally televised interviews to investor pitches and from major keynotes to IPO roadshows. Those events all require simple messages to reach the broadest audience.
Communicating in a crisis is even more complicated because, in addition to clear and concise messages, it requires an added “C:” consistency. Trust is established with the public when people in authority speak from the same playbook.
Dr. Tom Frieden, who led the CDC for eight years during the Obama administration—offered his advice in the New York Times story. He suggested that, once a consensus is established, every spokesperson involved in making an announcement should take part in a mock question-and-answer session to “practice for really tough questions.”
I cannot overstate just how important it is to hold mock practice sessions with what I call a ‘message map:’ One overarching message—a headline—supported by no more than three or four details. Studies going back decades have established that we can only hold about three messages in short-term memory. Too many messages trigger ‘cognitive load,’ which leads to confusion.
In a crisis, get to the point and get to it fast.
The CDC’s newly updated isolation guidelines runs 2,800 words and contains 45 bullet points and sub-points. The agency’s follow-up announcement to ‘clarify’ its recommendation wasn’t much clearer. I ran the text through a Grammarly tool that measures how easy a passage is to read and understand. The software concluded: “Your text may not be easy for many to read.”
It’s hard to read because the amount of information offered is overwhelming. The information should be available, of course, but clarity comes from the delivery. One headline that can be expressed in a short sentences—followed by three supporting messages— will help the CDC issue simple, clear, and concise guidelines that everyone can easily understand and follow.