Five Worst Communication Failures in a Crisis

Barbara S. Reynolds
Crisis Communication Expert
Office of Communication
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Let’s talk about mixed messages. Notice I didn’t say incorrect messages. The public doesn't want to have to "select" one of many messages to believe and then act on. Let me give you an example of mixed messages during a crisis response. In 1993 in the Midwestern United States there was great flooding.  Response officials determined that the water treatment facilities in some communities were compromised and that a "boil water" directive should be issued. The problem developed when multiple response organizations, government and non-government, issued directions for boiling water and each of them was different.  The fact is, in the United States, we turn on the faucet and clean water comes out.  Few of us know the "recipe" to boil water because we've never had to.

So, what's the big deal?  Just pick one and get to it.  Not so fast!  Consider this. I'm a young mother with an infant son and I need to mix his cereal with water.  I'm a middle-aged son caring for his mother who is currently immune compromised because of cancer chemotherapy.  Or, just maybe, I'm an average person who doesn’t like the thought of gambling on a bad case of diarrhea if I don't pick the right boil-water instructions.

In a crisis, people don't want to "just pick one" of many messages, they want the best one or the right one to follow.  When faced with a new threat, people want a consistent and simple recommendation to follow.  They want to hear absolute agreement about what they should do from multiple experts through multiple sources. 

Messages do not have to be wrong to be damaging.  If they are inconsistent the public will lose trust in the response officials and begin to question other recommendations. Consistent messages are important.