Media Training Won’t Save the CDC

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Media training: Is there anything it can’t do?

Well, yes. It can’t, for example, singlehandedly rescue a communications strategy that is so inconsistent and self-contradictory, that even the experts wonder what you’re doing.

Last week, CNN caught wind that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky had brought in a media consultant, amid complaints that her ever-evolving Covid messaging is causing more confusion than clarity.

(Watch Walensky try to clear things up, with limited success):

Media training helps poor communicators become better, and good communicators become stand-outs. Message testing and refinement are part of the package. But when a client’s institutional culture or political sensitivities interfere with clear messaging, even the best media trainer may find themselves hamstrung.

The fact is, Rochelle Walensky is an above-average communicator. She is calm, confident, and fairly adept at deflecting negative questions. But these days, trying to sound competent while delivering CDC messaging is like eating clean at the county fair.

And while it is true that medical guidance must be updated with each new variant, some of the CDC’s problems can’t be blamed on evolving science. For example:

  • Walensky can’t or won’t acknowledge the obvious: that after two years, we still don’t have an adequate testing infrastructure in this country. Admitting that might help the public understand why testing is being de-emphasized in some of the CDC’s new guidance.
  • Telling people who test positive with no symptoms they can re-enter society if they wear masks is a confusing message for much of the country where public masking is still mandatory anyway.
  • Shortening quarantine times, in part, to shore up the economy, worries the public amid a covid variant that is staggeringly transmissible

I hope Walensky’s media consultant points out these messaging problems and others. I also hope her media training is just one component of a broader PR overhaul. Because the trouble here is definitely the message itself, and not the messenger.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.