Emergency managers and the media: Do's and don'ts
The call comes in: possible gas leak at a high school, two teachers and about 15 students presenting with nausea, vomiting, headache and difficulty breathing. The hazmat team is on the scene, and 12 more students and another teacher start exhibiting symptoms. You have been chosen to talk to the media. Here are a few tips to guide you on your way.
Remain calm and offer reassurance. Speak to the media to dispell rumors and offer factual information, through a limited number of spokespersons who provide a uniform message. Whenever possible, separate patients from nonpatients and attempt to keep them from visual and audio contact.
Try to determine if the episode more closely fits the pattern of anxiety hysteria or motor hysteria, and realize that cases are likely to recurr unless the source of the underlying anxiety is addressed. Realize that the majority of MPI reports will become the subject of public controversy, and that emergency personnel should avoid taking sides.
Speak to the media individually. Say that it was "all in their heads," as the symptoms were real. Confirm the presence of a toxic substance without objective findings to support these claims. Alter pre-arranged emergency response plans. Rely on early media reports, as they are often inaccurate. Use the term “mass hysteria.”
Instead substitute “mass anxiety” or "mass psychogenic illness," as these terms are less likely to evoke an emotional backlash among victims. Suggest to patients what you think their symptoms should be (based on the suspected agent involved). For example, if a natural gas leak is the suspected cause of symptoms, let patients disclose their symptoms without prompting them.
This tip accompanied an article by Robert E. Bartholomew on mass psychogenic illness, published in the March 2006 issue of Crisis Response Journal.
Read more on this topic: Mass sociogenic illness: It’s real, yet it isn’t