Written by Everett MartinRemember Ebola? Yes, that Ebola, the disease from somewhere in Africa that killed…well, quite a few people in…what were those exact countries, again? Wait, don’t remind me…wasn’t one of them French-speaking?
Look, if you can’t remember, don’t worry. You’re in good company. The vast majority of the planet has done the same as you…forgotten.
In fact, if you’re like most people, you never paid much attention to Ebola to begin with. If you’re an average American Google user, then chances are it hit your radar only once it had landed on the shores of Western countries, and the victims had Western names and faces.
So there, you’re not alone. Doesn’t that make you feel better?
Well, it shouldn’t. Ebola wasn’t solved, cured, or eradicated, but merely contained and eventually controlled. The conditions that led to the spread of Ebola, and the subsequent international reaction (or inaction), are still very much in place. Not only can an outbreak like this happen again, but it most certainly will.
Still, I’ll bet that Ebola seems “so last year”, doesn’t it? That’s why I decided to write about it, to see what a difference a year makes. I’m not any sort of an expert on Ebola, or Africa, or medicine. Thankfully, this isn’t just a story about those things. It’s a story about how we in the West never really cared about Ebola, probably won’t care about “the next thing”, why that is, and what might be done about it.
There’s no good time to do a retrospective on something that’s still impacting the lives of so many people. Not to mention that the term post mortem seems far too literal and gruesome when more than 11,000 people have died. I think I’ll stop using that bit of corporate jargon altogether.
You also wouldn’t ask a public relations guy like me to provide a general overview of Ebola, and I’m not going to try. If you’ve tuned out for the past several months, suffice it to say that confusion, fear, social ostracism, mistrust of the healthcare system, displaced populations, orphaned children and painful, horrible death made up the predominant narrative.
The reason I’m looking back now is that I’ve sensed recently that attempts at public outreach regarding the outbreak are nearing their end:
• Liberia has been declared Ebola-free, and the WHO reports only a handful of new cases per week in Guinea and Sierra Leone.
• The BBC wrapped up their coverage of Ebola, a week after making sure the Peabody Award it earned them was secure on their mantle.
• Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF…aka Doctors Without Borders) International President Dr. Joanne Liu received the Canadian Public Relations Society President’s Award in recognition of “the work that [MSF] has done to raise awareness about Ebola and engage governments in a global call to action.”
That last point is relevant to me because I was privileged to witness the presentation at the CPRS 2015 conference in Montreal. Although Dr. Liu couldn’t attend in person, she accepted via video and made some poignant remarks. MSF board member Rachel Kiddell-Monroe was also on hand to speak in depth about Ebola awareness and to take questions from the audience. The gist of her comments were similar to Dr Liu’s own to the Gates Foundation a month prior.
I know they were grateful, but you’ll have to forgive folks at MSF if they don’t jump for joy when offered a kudos, a plaque and a handshake for their communication efforts. Yes, they achieved big wins: Dr Liu brought the MSF message of dire need for intervention directly to the United Nations, first to a member state briefing (video), followed by an address to the General Assembly, in September 2014. But today, MSF is still on the ground, the patients and staff they lost are still dead, and their reality is still one where an absence of political will and an underwhelming public outcry cost lives.
The Role of PR and Communications
Here’s where I start to wonder what communications and public relations professionals can do to garner awareness for important world issues like Ebola. I also wonder at what point we should consider ourselves morally obligated, as individuals or as a united profession, to step in and help.
I vividly remember reading a certain article in October 2014 that brought a tear to my eye. In it, a Red Cross spokesperson said that their organization wasn’t going to set up a text-to-donate number for Ebola relief, because there hadn’t been sufficient public demand for one. Out the window went “if you build it, they will come” and all other such lofty aspirations. The data had spoken, and on that day, all the potential donations that could have been collected for Ebola fell victim to so-called “best practices” in communications research and planning.
Should communicators allow ourselves to be led around by public opinion, or should we take the lead in changing it for the greater good? There is no clear answer, but one thing I do know that when we don’t intervene, someone or something else will come along to craft the narrative for us. Case in point…
The Iceman Cometh
At nearly the exact same time as Ebola was hitting its deadly stride, another force to be reckoned with emerged, out of nowhere, and took the world by storm. I’d say you’d have to be living under a rock to have missed it, except I’ve never seen a rock large and dense enough to insulate anyone from the biggest PR phenomenon of 2014.
Of course, I’m talking about Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis… I mean Lou Gehrig’s disease… I mean, ALS.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge nearly broke the Internet, as the kids say (I checked, they still say that.) The Challenge grew so quickly, and got so many regular people, public figures and celebrities aboard, that no one could escape its invasion into their online news feeds. Even I can’t resist telling you about my favourite Challenge video, in which Patrick Stewart eschewed the spectacle, wrote a cheque, and placed his ice in a whisky glass instead of on his head. How cheeky, financially accountable and sophisticated of you, Sir Patrick.
By the end of it all, there were so many homemade Challenge videos on Facebook that the company opportunistically publicized that it was suddenly a leader in online video hosting. Not surprisingly, they haven’t said much about it since Challenge cooled down (pun intended.)
The Ice Bucket Challenge wasn’t planned, at least not well. It grew and spread with lightning speed, and everyone became so “aware” and “engaged” in the campaign that they totally ignored that ALS is actually only one of five motor neuron diseases, or MNDs. So while the United States and Canada were making a splash (pun intended again) just for ALS, the more holistic MND-oriented charities in the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa were scrambling to rebrand themselves on the fly to cash in on the once-in-a-lifetime PR and fundraising opportunity. That said, had the Challenge been launched officially, globally and cooperatively, I suspect it would have failed. The casual spontaneity and lack of branding were part of the mass appeal.
I know I sound like a killjoy, trying to retroactively ruin everyone’s viral video fun. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge is bad. Nothing that helps saves lives can be labeled “bad”. But if the public has a finite appetite for information (I think they do) and a limited attention span (oooh, shiny!) then the question of prioritization, fairness and merit has to be considered.
I also think that PR and communications professionals must consider changing their approach to important global awareness campaigns, whether directed at public, government or corporate stakeholders. In that regard, Ebola serves a symbolic stand-in for any number of other potential crises.
Next week, in Part Two of this post: I will explore what we can learn from the divergent paths of Ebola and ALS awareness.