Spitfire Strategies

Context Matters: Ask the CDC

Beth Kanter

By Beth Kanter
Chief Strategy Officer

Even the best of intentions can fall flat if you don’t consider the context in which they will be received. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) learned this the hard way earlier this month when it issued a report discouraging pregnant and “pre-pregnant” women from drinking.

Good intention: Prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) by communicating with women of childbearing age about the effect of alcohol on fetuses in the first few weeks of pregnancy.

Reality: Women found the report condescending, offensive and in some cases laughable. The report encouraged health providers to advise ALL women not currently on birth control to stop drinking in case of an unplanned pregnancy, and included an infographic (see right) that claimed drinking puts “any woman” at risk of injury, sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy. Responses were swift and widespread, reaching over 112 million people on Twitter alone. Highly shared articles ranged from mild critiques of the CDC’s poor word choices to biting sarcasm, likening the warning to a Saudi Arabia-style driving ban. The CDC broke the Internet, and not in a good way.

In Spitfire’s Smart Plan, we encourage organizations to assess their vulnerabilities and consider what actions they can take to minimize the chance of controversy. The CDC clearly skipped this step. If it had gone through this exercise, it would have measured the hotly-charged political environment around women’s reproductive health and hopefully chosen its words more thoughtfully.  

The CDC’s response only fueled the controversy. Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director, admitted they (CDC) “weren’t as clear as we had hoped to be,” while Lela McKnight-Eily, a doctor on the FASD prevention team, maintained the report “definitely didn’t make any recommendations for women who are pre-pregnant.” Both officials emphasized the purpose of the report was to empower and inform women, but failed to acknowledge the real root of the criticism – the report came across as patronizing and presented women foremost as vessels for human life. The CDC’s responses reinforced this connotation by categorizing young, not-currently-pregnant women with the problematic term, “pre-pregnant.”

CDC2Still in the hot seat, the CDC modified the original infographic (see left) to say alcohol puts all people at risk for injury, STDs, etc. and included a male figure. But they didn’t tell anyone they changed it. Ethics-focused science writer Kelly Hills first noted the change on her blog, showing that the website included no marked edits. Speaking about the CDC she noted, “Changing graphics in response to outrage without acknowledging the outrage or why it existed doesn’t help their credibility, it just hurts it further.” Since then, the CDC has removed the graphic entirely – again without explanation.

The CDC could have avoided this entire backlash by paying more attention to context. If it had considered the current political climate, it would have made the connection between its intent and how it could be perceived. And while the CDC didn’t break the cardinal rule of crisis communication – don’t lie – it came pretty close by not disclosing that it changed the infographic.

Want to make sure your organization is prepared for anything that might come your way? Check out Smart Plan: Spitfire’s Guide to Crisis Prep and Management (for free!) to plan for – and prevent – your next communication crisis.

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