Exit Interview with Christy Feig, Part II

Photo of the WHO Seal

Christy Feig shares lessons learned from 6 years leading WHO communications in part II of this exit interview with GHN editor-in-chief Brian W. Simpson. (Read Part I here.)

Are there other lessons that you would pull out for global health leaders?
I think number one: Communicate. Keep the lines of communication open, and be transparent. If you get out and communicate, people trust you. You communicate openly, transparently, people trust you. And getting people to take the actions you’re going to ask them to take all rely on trust.

It’s interesting because the typical public health mindset is to first make sure everything’s 100% right, and then come out with the full explanation. But that takes enormous amounts of time. So out of that positive intention, the public may perceive you’re hiding something, or you don’t know what’s going on. 
That’s the biggest risk. You just hit the nail on the head. If people think you’re hiding something, it will break all trust. You’ve got to have all the information, and you’ve got to be accurate. So one of the key things we did in my shop was tried to build front-end information on as much as possible. In some earthquakes, when it comes to cyclones, when it comes to flooding, you know what the health impacts tend to be. You can build all of that in advance. You may not know about that particular disaster, what the specifics of that one have been, but you can get out there and you can say, “In emergencies like this we tend to see...” Then you can lay that over what are the health situations in this environment to begin with. And you can make some more extrapolations. Building things in advance is so important. In emergencies, you don’t have to know everything, especially at the front end of an emergency or disease outbreak. People expect you saying, “We don’t know that yet. This is what we’re doing to find out.”

Did you get pushback on that? Are people in public health and in WHO kind of reluctant to say “I don’t know”?
Yes, people always get nervous about that. They don’t believe that it’s OK to say “I don’t know,” but yes, it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” It’s not OK to say “No comment.” “No comment” means you’re guilty. “I don’t know” means simply that. Human beings don’t know everything. The thing you have to do if you’re going to go with “I don’t know,” you have to say what you’re going to do to find out about it.

The thing that took them a while to figure out [was], “perception is fact if you don’t address it.” They learned it very quickly once I started parroting it all the time. Social media, you throw something out there, it may not be true, but people bat it around until they determine what is true by triangulating many sources.

You’ve got to listen and you’ve got to engage.

I’d love to hear your critique of Zika, and the response to Zika from WHO.
What [caused] the Public Health Emergency of International Concern is this upsurge of microcephaly, and these Guillain-Barré syndrome [cases]. The way they framed it is so important. The Public Health Emergency of International Concern is because of the microcephaly and the neurological problems. In that report, they are very careful not to say it’s because of Zika. When communicating that to people who just hear Zika, Zika, Zika, Zika, Zika, they’re struggling. They’re really struggling to get people to hear that right. [People] are jumping to the link that Zika causes it. And that’s a very important distinction. It’s very challenging, because what happens if 2 months down the road we realize there’s no connection to Zika, it just happens that they’re in the same place? If we’ve allowed people to make that connection in their head, and then we come back in two months and say, “No, it’s not Zika, it’s something,” then it breaks the trust of WHO, doesn’t it?

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