Anthrax Scare Blemishes CDC’s Crisis Management Track Record

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    Series of potentially deadly failures raises major questions

    Over the past couple of years we’ve frequently mentioned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as paving the way for government agencies when it comes to effective crisis communications. The agency has set a fantastic example, making use of information sharing and the latest technologies to keep the public informed regarding dangerous situations.

    Unfortunately, the CDC dropped the ball big time in late June when internal failures led to more than 80 lab workers being exposed to live anthrax. Yes, you read that right – live anthrax. That’s not all, though. Investigators also discovered an unreported incident that saw a high-security CDC lab accidentally send samples containing a dangerous strain of bird flu to researchers as the U.S. Department of Agriculture in March. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, this month saw the discovery of six vials of smallpox in an unsecured room at the National Institute of Health, including two containing live strains of the deadly virus.

    The CDC has stated that “multiple failures by individual scientists and a lack of agency-wide safety policies” led to the worrisome slip-ups, but there are signs of a deeper issue as well. According to CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, the bird flu incident was not reported to agency leadership at all. With questions being raised by the legislators and the public alike about the CDC’s ability to ensure the safety of its operations, Frieden is on the hot seat. He did show some serious crisis communications chops with his statement on the situation, which opened with one of the best mea culpas we’ve ever seen:

    “We need to look at our culture of safety throughout all of our laboratories, I’m upset, I’m angry. I’ve lost sleep over it and I’m doing everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

    That is how you show people you care. Reading that one sentence, you know that Frieden sees how big of a problem these mistakes are, and that he means business when it comes to setting his organization straight. He’ll have to back it up with action, and soon, in order to avoid taking more damage, but it’s an excellent start.

    Every organization will encounter crises, whether avoidable or not. The important thing is to step up, admit there’s an issue, and then take care of it, communicating like a human being the whole way through.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]