Christy Feig Q&A: Exit Interview, Part I

Photo of Christy Feig, former WHO Director of Communications, and Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General.

In an era when social media outpaces the global spread of viruses and reliable news, government and health leaders no longer have the luxury of weighing all the evidence before addressing public concerns. Too often leaders neglect one of their most important tools: Communications. Timely and accurate communications are essential, says Christy Feig, who recently stepped down as WHO’s Director of Communications after 6 years. Feig, now a vice president with Global Health Strategies, shares her lessons learned and her reflections on Ebola and Zika in this exit interview with GHN editor-in-chief Brian W. Simpson.

During crises, organizations like WHO not only have to respond immediately but 100% accurately as well. How do you manage that?
That’s one of the most important things for WHO. Earlier in 2015, we were having the conversation about the principles for communicating in emergencies. And the one that everybody always puts up there first is speed. You’ve got to get out there, and you’ve got to communicate fast, and you’ve got to communicate first. But for us, we had a big debate, because … you cannot compromise accuracy for speed.

If you say something and then you have to go back and take it out, that’s a real blow to your credibility.
It’s even more than that. It breaks trust, because it makes people question everything. For WHO, it’s not an option. And the way we cracked that on social media, the way we built that into the system, was probably one of the most important things that we did.

I can remember the Fukushima accident [in 2011]. Because it was an earthquake, a tsunami, and a radioactive accident, it brought many different experts to the table. And any time you try to get information woven together that involves many different expertises, it’s going to take 3 times as long. And we were struggling, because I said, “You know what, guys? We don’t have time, the kind of time that you’re going to need to get all of this approved.” And we finally realized that, you know what? We don’t need all of those talking points approved. All we need is 140 characters approved. And you can always get 140 characters approved pretty quickly. There are always messages that you can start with while the bigger messages are still going through the approval process. And actually, it made communicating during emergency response much easier.

How do you balance that need while realizing that the technical experts need to be doing their thing, and not just communicating?
It’s a challenge every day. You’ll see it even today with Zika. You know, you’ve got people that are trying to study the latest data from Zika, and we’re saying, “We need you for an interview,” and they’re saying, “I don’t have time, I’m busy,” (laughter) you know. And you’re like, “No, you can’t afford not to do this.”

I think this shift to you have to communicate in real time, it hit them very hard in many places, because most of them just want to be left alone to do their work. But we started changing the culture, and we’ve really been able to do a shift at WHO in recent years. It came from senior leadership. It came from the Director General saying, “We have to have our leaders out there talking. Communications is part of your job.” And it really is. It really is in today’s environment. Communication has to be one of the most important things you’re doing. I mean, if you look at WHO, we give the gold standard of health advice for the world. If you do anything that calls that into question, you question every aspect of health advice that we give.

One of the first things we often do—and you may remember it from the early days of Ebola—we pass the note on social media. We tell them what’s going on, and then we put an invite for them to ask questions, because we want that two-way conversation, because that two-way conversation with people will tell us where we need to be focusing our energies on messaging. I mean, if we’re trying to put out a message that we think should be out there, but it’s not what people are hungry for, well, then it’s a waste of our time, frankly.

We let the real people drive the information that we were putting out, because we think that they’re the focus group.

So let’s talk a little more about Ebola. The narrative emerged that MSF were the heroes, calling this early, and WHO was kind of plodding and ineffective. How fair is that narrative, and where do you think the WHO team might’ve done better in terms of driving the response to that?
We have responded to, I’d say, a dozen Ebola outbreaks in the past 10 years. And MSF is one of our strongest partners in doing those. We never go into an Ebola outbreak without MSF. We have very different roles and responsibilities, but they’re both essential. They’re a very important partner. So when your important partner calls you out on something, you listen. I think in Ebola, what we did wrong there was we mounted a strong response at the beginning, but it was for a different outbreak.

We had, what, a dozen outbreaks in recent years in places where Ebola tends to happen. And the communities know what it is, and they know what they need to do, and they sound the alarm, and they do the proper protections, and they bring their people to the Ebola centers. They know what to do. It is a known entity, if you will.

When Ebola broke out in West Africa, it was a disease we knew in a completely different context. We did not take into account to a high enough degree the repercussions of a community not understanding what this was, and the necessity to explain it in a way they understood. And I think it’s fair to say we mounted a strong response to the Ebola we knew, which was completely not big enough, not strong enough, for the outbreak it was.

It really demonstrates the importance of location and tailoring response to that.
And understanding... I mean, really, Ebola completely taught us the importance of engaging the communities. It’s not something WHO does itself directly, but we support a lot of partners doing this by getting the proper messages and things like that. But I think the message goes far beyond WHO. I think WHO took it on first as, yes, we could’ve done more. But every single organization that responded to that outbreak didn’t get it right on that piece especially. How do you work with communities who don’t know a disease outbreak, who don’t know how to protect themselves, when you’re asking them to protect themselves in ways that violate all their cultural norms?

You’re asking people not to touch a dead body. You’re working in communities where that’s how you send a loved one to the afterlife, and if you don’t give them a proper sendoff it’s not going to work. You know, how do you convince somebody that complete strangers coming in in protective gear are right, and that you need to stop doing what you have been doing for generations in order to save lives?

I think organizationally across the globe we’ve got to figure this out. How do you quickly get a community that doesn’t know you to change really important behaviors to stop a disease outbreak? We have not mastered that.

Part II will be published on March 1. 

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