Do Hugs Work Better than Quarantines?

President Obama's Reassuring Embrace of a Recovered Ebola Patient Was the Best Way to Say the Virus Can Be Beaten

The Constitution stipulates that the president is the commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, but chief executives since Washington have accrued to the office a number of additional unstipulated “in-chief” roles. Among them are: consoler-in-chief, mourner-in-chief, salesman-in-chief, cheerleader-in-chief, and reassurer-in-chief.

It was in that last role that President Obama bear-hugged Nina Pham in the Oval Office. The hug came at the end of last week, on Oct. 24, the day the 26-year-old nurse was released from her Atlanta hospital isolation room after overcoming Ebola.

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As a crisis communications consultant and former television producer, it seemed to me that the President’s reassuring gesture was designed to convey these ideas to the public:

– Ebola can be beaten.
– The American healthcare system can cure Ebola.
– Ebola cannot be transmitted from a former patient.
– Do not be afraid of Ebola.
– I am a caring and concerned leader.

Such gestures work far more effectively than saying all those things out loud.

Public officials have held press conferences and cited facts about how the Ebola virus does not travel through air, water, food, or casual contact. These officials taken some well-publicized actions—from airport screenings to quarantines—to show they’re serious about preventing the disease from getting into our country. But panic over Ebola still has not abated. Instead, I think these theatrical actions have only reinforced the idea that we should be afraid.

Obama’s hug made a lasting impression because it was a demonstration of calm in action. The expressions, “Actions speak louder than words” and “A picture is worth a thousand words” are clichés because they are true. There is no better way to demonstrate care and concern than by hugging and no better way to demonstrate anger than by a slightly raised, but controlled, voice.

Let me tell you a story about a different virus and the same gesture: In 1987, I produced the pilot for Geraldo Rivera’s talk show. One segment concerned AIDS and HIV, then a mysterious and misunderstood plague. Our guest was an HIV-positive woman. The crew panicked and refused to get behind their cameras, although there was no way a woman sitting six feet away could infect them. The audience, too, was very jumpy. So Geraldo brought the woman on stage and gave her a big hug. It worked. The cameramen took their positions; the audience stayed put.

I took a cue from Geraldo in 1997, while I was working with NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn, which was due to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Electricity for Cassini’s instruments comes from the natural heat emanating from non-weapons-grade plutonium, 72 pounds of which were on the spacecraft. That plutonium became the focus of strenuous protests in cities around the launch site because of fears that Cassini would explode on launch, releasing a dangerous cloud of radioactive dust.

Technically, this scenario was nearly impossible, yet critics promoted it extensively. Even 60 Minutes weighed in with a sensationalized, scientifically specious segment. I determined that NASA spokespersons could cite statistics and safety data until the cows came home, but dry numbers were no match for the highly-emotional claim, “You’re all gonna die.”

What did work was a response composed by Cassini’s project manager, Richard Spehalski:
1. NASA has been safely launching some form of that non-weapons-grade plutonium for 40 years–all the way back to the Apollo astronauts who flew with it to the moon.
2. No member of the public has ever been injured in a NASA launch.
3. I am so convinced it will be safe that I will be there, and so will the most precious person in the world to me–my 3-year-old granddaughter.

This was a shock-and-awe answer; Mr. Spehalski overwhelmed the negative (you’re all gonna die) with three positives. And while his first two points were factual, the third was emotional. Not quite as effective as a hug–but the verbal equivalent, I think.

You cannot overwhelm emotion with facts and reason alone. Why is that? Blame it on the amygdala, the so-called lizard brain. The deeply buried amygdala–the fight or flight center–is the part of our brain that responds when our hot buttons are pressed. We know this from research conducted by Vincent Covello of Columbia University and the Center for Risk Control. Dr. Covello also found that it was best to overwhelm a negative assertion with three positives. Two, four, five? None of them as effective as three. No one knows for sure why that is; it’s just the way our brains work.

Today, the media and the political worlds have discovered that pressing those hot buttons and firing up the pesky amygdala over a fantasy domestic Ebola epidemic is good business. Over the decades I’ve observed closely a number of public health emergencies–real ones, like annual polio epidemics that left thousands paralyzed, the last U.S. smallpox outbreak, AIDS, SARS, and swine flu. But I’ve never seen one politicized like this. I call it the Ebolafright Industry. The political motive is obvious: elections are coming up. And for the media it’s cheaper and easier to fret about a two-person “epidemic” at home than to cover one in Africa that has afflicted 10,000. Fear draws viewers and readers; fear gets you elected; fear overwhelms reason.

It appears as if reassurer-in-chief Obama is going to have to do a lot more bear hugging in the days ahead. But with a little luck, he’ll soon run out of patients to hug. After all, of the nine people treated for Ebola in this country, six have recovered, two remain in treatment, and just one–the grievously mishandled Liberian gentleman, Thomas Eric Duncan–has died. Moreover, only two–both nurses who treated Duncan–have contracted the virus in this country.

A note of hope for the media and politicians looking for another frightfest: There’s always Entrovirus D68. That disease already has infected nearly 1,000 people in 47 states and has killed twice as many as Ebola in this country (i.e. two). Or they can obsess about this fall and winter’s flu epidemic which, if the past is a prologue, will kill thousands of us.

George Merlis, principal of Experience Media Consulting in Los Angeles, is a media trainer and crisis communications consultant. He is the author of three books on the subject, most recently Merlis on Media Mastery. Previously he was a print reporter and editor, and an Emmy-winning television producer for investigative programs and shows such as Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight.

Thinking L.A. is a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.
Primary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Larry Downing.
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