Ebola crisis comms described by Charlie Tarr
17th February 2015
The world’s most dangerous ever Ebola outbreak first came to global attention in July 2014. In the following months it escalated and threatened Liberia and its neighbours with an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. Without a concerted international response Liberia faced a humanitarian disaster not witnessed since the end of its civil war in 2003.
That month, we were asked to manage an international crisis communications campaign for the Liberian government, having already been contracted to support global communications for the administration. Our initial goal was simple but ambitious – a “call to arms”, seeking the international community’s assistance.
The government had several immediate needs: boosting its capacity to deal with increased media scrutiny; combating misinformation and hysteria around the reporting of both Ebola and Liberia; the lack of urgency of international stakeholders; and the need for a communications strategy that worked with the medical efforts.
Our target was to speak with one message to governments, beginning with the United States and Great Britain, and intergovernmental organisations including the UN, EU, IMF and World Bank. It was also important to affect the public perception of Ebola. Misinformation about this disease was rife.
We immediately set up a 24-hour international press office based in London, as a point of call for all international media enquiries, and ensuring a Liberian voice in reporting of the crisis. We soon become the recognised hub for information and comment from the government of Liberia.
Each morning we held briefing calls with the minister of information, which followed his inter-agency meeting in the capital Monrovia. When the crisis reached its peak – such as the declaration of a State of Emergency – we distributed daily briefings to our targeted international media contacts. This led to a consistent, daily voice from the government. As new cases were discovered globally or international air routes were severed, our press office became the tool for the government to assert its position.
But it was also important to shape the debate and provide context to the crisis. Liberia remains an unknown country to many and without understanding of its recent civil war there was less likelihood for empathy. We also forcefully communicated the devastating effects of an unchecked Ebola outbreak on its post-war economy.
By August, despite the government’s efforts, it became apparent the international community’s response would be slow. To check this, we arranged for several interventions by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. This included exclusive access to shadow the president for the day or broadcast interviews. Most notably, the president read a “Letter to the World”, broadcast across the BBC on Sunday 19 October. It was an impassioned plea for help that swept the global media, running across multi platforms on BBC TV and radio and going viral on social media. Separate interventions included op-eds for finance minister Amara Konneh in the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and the Guardian, and multiple broadcast interviews for the minister of information Lewis Brown with the BBC, Al-Jazeera, CNN, NBC and others.
The Ebola crisis caused huge strain on the government and its ministers. There was intense pressure from the population and the Liberian media. But throughout, we counselled on a policy of complete transparency. While this initially caused Liberia discomfort, by November this decision was vindicated with international aid and attention on Liberia maximised.
The campaign contributed to turning the tide on Ebola in Liberia, through the enlisting of international support. It helped to wake up and galvanise the international community behind the president and her country and pushed for rapid assistance for the national budget. Crucially, it supplied extra capacity for the government to speak to the world during a period of profound uncertainty. Liberia is now seen as a regional leader by its engagement with the international community during the Ebola crisis. The disease is now in retreat. This is a legacy of which the government can and should be very proud.
Charlie Tarr, account director at communications agency BTP Advisers