Anatomy of a Crisis: Ebola at Emory

Emory University became the focus of worldwide media attention – and social media vitriol – when two of the first U.S. citizens to be treated for the Ebola virus in the U.S. arrived at its hospital.

During several weeks of the 24/7 media siege, the Emory communications staff strategically applied traditional and innovative public relations practices to change negative perceptions, practice transparency and communicate effectively with numerous constituencies.

One of the people managing the communications efforts was Nancy Seideman, associate vice president for Media Relations at Emory University. The university messages focused on safety, expertise and protecting patients (the Ebola patients and others at the hospital).

Seideman stressed during a conference presentation that from day one, messages were first shared internally, and later with the media. Internally, Seideman said, “People needed to feel safe and have confidence.” In addition, no media interviews were done without first prepping the speaker and ensuring that an Emory media rep was present for the interview.

Another consideration was ensuring that the university stayed within its own lane. ”What is yours to own?” Seideman asked. “What is appropriate for you to talk about and what should others talk about?”

Despite the viciousness of social media, Emory stayed above the fray. As Chief Nurse Executive Susan Grant emphasized, “We must care in both senses of the word.”

She and others emphasized that to eradicate deadly diseases, hospitals must first treat the patients who have the diseases. This led to the mantra of “We can fear or we can care.”

“We can fear or we can care.”

Surviving the crisis entailed finding a way for Emory to tell its story. It created a content development and approval process in which all content and messages were posted to a list serve where individuals who were authorized could review the materials and edit and approve.

Emory also focused on its numerous audiences, and always began with internal communications. It employed a variety of media tools.

“The risk of making an error was very high,” Seideman said. “We had to be really careful.”

Despite being out in front, it was clear that the media was not going away so Emory brought in an outside PR firm to assist. Seideman said fatigue was beginning to set in with staff working 18-hour days. The PR firm could assist, particularly with proactive messaging.

Media relations efforts focused on local and national media, and Seideman was quick to caution to not forget about the local media. Social media and news conferences also were important, as was day-to-day contact with news media. The daily contact became part of the Emory media team’s tent tour, where they provided regular updates and images as needed.

Among the lessons learned was the importance of reviewing protocols and processes regularly. “Our eyes glaze over when we need to update our practices and protocols for a crisis, but we must do it,” she said.

Also important, Seideman said, “Message discipline is key in a crisis.”

While the story has faded some, “The story is never really over,” Seideman said. Emory staff continue to give presentations on the topic. A website was created that includes video, recent news and resources.

Seideman continues to stay on point. When she ended her presentation at a recent conference, one of her last slides includes a list of the individuals who had worked during the crisis, from doctors and nurses to media staff.

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