The Ebola Case Study for Public Affairs

Health-researcher

Living just miles away from the hospital treating the first Ebola patient in the U.S. brought the fight against Ebola – not to mention fear of the disease – home to those of us who live and work in Dallas. As a case study, the fight against Ebola has already led to – and continues to lead to – numerous changes in how we deal with public health crisis situations in the U.S. and internationally. That’s what makes this recent Harvard Business Review article on the World Health Organization’s findings of the crisis especially interesting. In the article, Dr. Ranu S. Dhillon and Devabhaktuni Srikrishna outline not only the challenges faced in the crisis, but also recommendations for how we improve our response going forward.

So what does all of this have to do with public affairs? For those who have ever dealt with a strategic communications crisis of any kind or managed public affairs for a large organization, these challenges will look familiar.  Here’s a quick look at the quotes from the HBR article, followed by its relation to public affairs:

  • Even as this epidemic grew, the prevailing mindset was that these established approaches just needed to be applied more widely and with better execution rather than fundamentally rethought.”  How often in the public affairs world do we see the old playbook get dusted off the shelf to be run on any campaign regardless of the new objectives or facts on the ground?
  • In the context of the emergency, the urgent and, at times, chaotic implementation of activities by so many different organizations also confounds the ability to systematically institute, evaluate, and iterate new approaches.”  In other words, this is the classic battle in public affairs of “motion versus momentum” where we have a lot of people spending a lot of time doing a lot of things. But are any of them really advancing the issue forward?  Are we taking the time to say is this the right approach or is there a better way?
  • Many of the organizations involved in the Ebola response, such as United Nations (UN) agencies and government ministries, are hulking bureaucracies that are simply not structured to innovate.”  Especially for any practitioner of public affairs in a large corporation or organization, this probably hits home most of all.  How often does “process,” “approval chains” and “this is the way we’ve always done it” get in the way of innovative opportunities?

If you want some solutions to these challenges, you need look no further than some of the same solutions being recommended for dealing with the Ebola crisis and other public health crisis in the future. Here’s a quick look at the recommendations in the HBR article, followed by the related solution for public affairs:

  • “Dedicated focus and funding for innovation.”  Put together an internal team and/or bring together your consultants – separate from the team already pulled together – to evaluate the challenges being faced and objectives being sought so they can work together to develop creative solutions to these problems.  Personally, I’m a big fan of bringing experts from disparate focus areas together on such a team to see if there are solutions from other problems that are being faced outside of the organization that can be applied here.
  • “Collaboration between innovative organizations and implementing agencies.” In other words, for theory to solve the problems on the ground, those who are “thinking big” need to be sitting next to and bouncing ideas off of those who are dealing with the issue on the ground. Often the real solution is found in the marriage of “here’s a big idea that will fundamentally change your way of campaigning” from the creative thinkers and “that would be great if it weren’t for XX” from those who have to fight the war daily.  Similarly, just as some of the bigger problems in the fight against Ebola were the “smaller problems” like protective suits or testing processes. It’s often the case in public affairs that the challenges that the innovators need to solve in a campaign are the small things, like how to develop a better list, how to get a quick message out to a more tailored audience, etc.
  • “Streamlined mechanisms for evaluating new approaches.”  This message is for those of you who are campaign managers or executives in your organization. It’s not enough for you to put the team together and come up with the solutions if the process and bureaucracy of the organizations you lead will continue to get in the way of innovative solutions.  At a leadership level, there must be a way to expedite solutions to get them into the field.

The cost in human lives and sacrifice are rarely, if ever, higher than in the case of a public health crisis.  But, just as the lessons of the Dallas Ebola episode will hopefully lead to better future outcomes in the public health arena, there is no reason that the lessons from this crisis can’t translate to solutions for the other challenges we all face on a daily basis.

 

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The Ebola Case Study for Public Affairs

Health-researcher

Living just miles away from the hospital treating the first Ebola patient in the U.S. brought the fight against Ebola – not to mention fear of the disease – home to those of us who live and work in Dallas. As a case study, the fight against Ebola has already led to – and continues to lead to – numerous changes in how we deal with public health crisis situations in the U.S. and internationally. That’s what makes this recent Harvard Business Review article on the World Health Organization’s findings of the crisis especially interesting. In the article, Dr. Ranu S. Dhillon and Devabhaktuni Srikrishna outline not only the challenges faced in the crisis, but also recommendations for how we improve our …

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