Raising a red flag on
the wrong problem
The enthusiasm that inspired us for 18 months vanished instantly. The moment my research partner, Steven Venette, and I learned a second plane hit the World Trade Center, we found a television set and improvised a set of rabbit ears so we could watch a fuzzy picture of the coverage. We sat watching and writing in a cramped Minard Hall office, surrounded by stacks of printouts that represented nearly two years of work. We were writing a final report for a study designed to enhance risk communication in America's major ports. When the first tower collapsed upon itself, Steve and I shared a look that said we had worked for nearly two years on a federally funded project that solved precisely the wrong problem. We continued writing, more as a diversion than anything else. We still needed to finish the report, but the project had lost some of its relevance.
As we watched the second tower crumble, we recalled the forewarnings we heard consistently from agents at the ports we visited. Inspectors for the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service from nearly every port told us they knew something big was going to happen -- they feared a major terrorist attack on American soil. This persistent warning only inspired us to work harder on the project, hoping to contribute in some way to the agency's vigilance. On September 11, I recall saying, "this must be what they meant." Steve nodded, turned away from the television, and we returned to writing the report.
The entire nation mourned in the hours and days after September 11, 2001. For Steve and me, however, the dejection crossed the boundaries of our personal and professional lives. We had visited every major port in the United States. We introduced the best risk communication theory and practice to the United States Department of Agriculture. Like every agent we interviewed, we wanted to make a positive difference. On September 11, we realized the true threat. I can only hope I will never feel such dark disappointment again in my professional life.
We had experienced the best laboratory to study risk and crisis communication in the real world. We listened to agents describe the challenges they face and responded with strategies for meeting those challenges. The benefits of working in an applied setting, however, come at a cost of added pressure. To fail in an applied setting means disappointing the people who have invited you into their world to help solve their problems.
Risk and crisis communication scholars describe three types of failure. A Type One error occurs when we advise a group to prepare for a crisis and the crisis does not occur. A Type Two error -- the one I consider the worst -- happens when we fail to recommend preparing for a crisis that does occur. A Type Three error transpires when we obligate considerable resources to solving precisely the wrong problem. Our goal as risk and crisis specialists is to help organizations dedicate the right resources to the right problems. While this may sound reasonable, the uncertainty that naturally surrounds potential crises makes achieving this goal very difficult.
Steve and I did finish the report. We were even awarded funding for a new project designed to study communication surrounding resource allocation in American ports. Still, the disappointment lingered.
We got a little enthusiasm in December of 2001 with a rushed trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The true magnitude of the situation became frighteningly clear to me as my CDC escort and I walked quickly past pushcarts loaded with small pox vaccine. The carts had been assembled soon after September 11. They were stored temporarily in the hallways outside the auditorium located deep within the campus of the CDC. Inside the auditorium, the nation's best minds in disease diagnosis and epidemiology meet regularly to plan for crises and to coordinate their response to major disease outbreaks. As representatives from many CDC departments shuffled into the auditorium, I felt a little out of place, but also highly relevant. The CDC wanted to debrief about their communication during the Anthrax crisis of 2001, and I was one of three communication scholars invited to attend.
Approximately 30 CDC directors and selected staff members participated in the day-long debriefing. The process began with group discussions. The three communication specialists spoke briefly and were then rotated among the groups to share ideas and recommendations based on their areas of specialty.
The discussions went on for hours. Highly technical and procedural aspects were hotly debated. After hours of intense deliberation, one moment crystallized in my memory. A simple, honest, and straightforward comment from Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of infectious disease for the CDC during the anthrax threat. Her department was criticized, somewhat unfairly, for communicating inconsistent messages early in the crisis. During a group discussion, I asked a question about coordinating information among CDC staff members, which sparked a defensive comment from a department member. Gerberding politely interrupted, reminding the staff member that the goal was to learn whatever they could so they would be better prepared for future crises. From that point on, the group's attitude shifted from defensiveness to genuine concentration on the task at hand.
I was impressed with Gerberding's authentic interest in and commitment to the entire debriefing process. Her comment assured me the process was worthwhile. Her words also instilled a sense of patience and candor on the part of her staff. In that moment, I learned a lesson about effective management in post-crisis communication situations that I never forget.
Not surprisingly, several months after this meeting, Gerberding was named director of the CDC. She has a reputation for strong management and communication skills.
I honestly can say I do not remember working harder than I did during those nine hours in the CDC auditorium. Perhaps it was the demanding schedule. Maybe it was the stressful nature of the situation. Perhaps the meeting had instilled me with a sense of redemption. Whatever the cause, I can recall having run full marathons without being as exhausted as I was after that CDC debriefing. When we were finally dismissed from the meeting, I passed on having dinner with the other communication specialists. I walked across the street to the hotel, sat down on my bed and fell asleep at 8 p.m., still wearing my suit. I slept hard for nearly six hours. This may have been the most soundly I had slept since September 11.
My research agenda has continued to expand since attending the CDC meetings in December 2001. Venette and I have been to the CDC repeatedly to work on a variety of projects since 2001. We also have teamed with William Nganje, associate professor of agribusiness and finance at NDSU, on a major project funded by the Department of Homeland Security.
I am grateful for the opportunity to share my research in ways intended to enhance national security. In the sinking moments of September 11, I could not have imagined so many new opportunities to work with national security would emerge.
-- Tim Sellnow