In our increasingly globalized world, the consequences of climate change and pandemics are far-reaching while vaccine hesitancy, climate skepticism, and the Trump administration’s science and energy policies threaten to block efforts toward finding solutions.
Halfway through its first week, the Trump administration froze the Environmental Protection Agency’s grants and contracts, issued a gag order on public communication, and ordered the agency to remove climate change from its website. Now more than ever, there is a need for individuals who can engage the deeply partisan public in scientific issues, in ways that foster interest and excitement while helping to weed out fear mongering and misinformation.
As the first female director of the CDC, and current executive vice president for strategic communications, global public policy and population health at Merck, Julie Gerberding has a long and impressive history of communicating science to the public—and of assuaging fear.
We spoke with her back in October (a slightly simpler time), hours before she was honored with 2016 Charlie Butcher Award, awarded to scientists who have made significant contributions to bioscience and biotechnology.
We asked Gerberding to share her insights and strategies as an adept science communicator, her experiences dealing with global health catastrophes, and what it was like to be the first woman to lead the CDC. Her lessons in storytelling, empathy and fortitude are more relevant now than ever.
When communicating science, Gerberding warns against the age-old plight most scientists can attest to—using technical jargon and giving so much information that you overwhelm your audience.
“One of the mistakes that scientific people make is thinking if they just provide enough information, they will be persuasive—this doesn’t work. People don’t make decisions just based on their objective, left brain. They make assessments based on what they feel, and what they’re afraid of, and what they hear from people they know and trust.”
Instead, Gerberding suggests telling a story to help your audience feel emotionally connected to the information. “That’s really the hardest part about scientific reporting— it’s how do you make it real, or emotionally relevant to the person that you’re trying to inform or influence, and data isn’t really the most persuasive tool.”
Narrative storytelling and emotionally engaging audiences is notoriously difficult for us scientists. But in this politically divisive time, we have a responsibility to learn how to connect with the public.
When communicating to the public during a national health crisis— as she had to do while the world faced SARS, anthrax bioterrorism and multiple new influenza strains—Gerberding says to avoid the tendency to over reassure people. “When there’s a new and frightening infection outbreak, or any other problem occurring, it’s actually normal and healthy for people to be a little frightened—it’s a good, honest instinct at a time of great uncertainty.”
What to do instead? Be first, be credible, be right, and be empathetic.
As Gerberding told us, being first is important because it sets the stage for the rounds of talk shows and television commentaries, while being credible means having your facts straight and presenting them in a calm and straightforward, honest manner.
The third thing, she told us, is to be right, so that you have confidence that what you’re saying represents an accurate assessment of the situation.
“You really have to be as honest as you possibly can and just let people know the truth. And amazingly, most people can handle the truth,” she said.
But the most important thing, according to Gerberding, is to be empathetic. “That means that you have to get off your high horse and not be the expert,” she emphasized. This applies to all types of science communication, not just in times of crisis, and is a good rule to live by.
Speaking of empathy, it’s important to understand that people who question vaccines aren’t actually crazy. “Most people who are hesitant about vaccines are people like us. They’re very reasonable people who have heard a lot of things and they’re a little confused and they don’t want to do anything that can possibly harm their child,” Gerberding told us.
On dealing with vaccine hesitancy, Gerberding stressed that the CDC must reach out to pediatricians and other clinicians: “Who is delivering the message is very important.” This should be someone who the patient normally trusts, she explained. Maybe passionate op-eds aren’t the best way to reach audiences on this issue.
We also talked to her about what it was like to be the first female head of the CDC. Gerberding emphasized that she was an outsider on multiple levels—not only was she the first woman director of the CDC, but also the first director who was a board-certified infectious diseases doctor. “I was an outlier in a lot of respects, and I think collectively that made the job very hard.”
She described the CDC as an organization that needed to evolve in order to be faster and operate on a larger scale—an evolution that would require a culture change.
“Culture change is unpopular and very hard,” she said with a laugh. “I knew that if my goal was to be popular, I would fail.” Instead, Gerberding focused on working to prepare the CDC to be better equipped to handle worldwide public health threats – anthrax, SARS and Zika, to name a few – with the unprecedented scale, visibility and global magnitude.
Would changing the CDC’s culture be any easier if she wasn’t the first female director? “There were a lot of situations and a lot of people who worked at the CDC for a long time who told me that my job would have been a lot easier if I was a man. I don’t know, but that’s what I’m told by women who had been there and some men who had been there for a long time.”
Gerberding said she experienced sexism in other parts of government, outside of the CDC. “I might be the only woman or one of just a few women, and while there may be something that looks diverse, there’s a difference between diversity and inclusion. There’s a difference between diversity and respect.”
Inclusion needs to mean truly listening to the diverse collection of voices in an institution of any kind.
“Diversity is sort of descriptive, but inclusion and respect are behavioral and cultural attributes, and it’s a lot harder to accomplish those two dimensions than to just simply get more women or get more people of color or more people who come from visibly diverse sectors,” she said.
Gerberding’s achievements in areas of medicine and science, her composure in the face of national and international health crises and her wisdom as a communicator have made her an inspirational figure for young scientists and communication professionals everywhere.
As the Trump administration takes shape, we’re committed to putting her insights into practice.
Want it straight from the horse’s mouth? Check out Dr. Gerberding’s talk here.
By Aggie Mika and Alison Gilchrist