Sunday, September 20, 2009

Is it Ever OK to Lie to Prevent Panic?

On CNN this morning, President Obama talked about his family's plans for H1N1 prevention.  He said that the "Obama Family Plan" is to
call up my Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, and my Centers for Disease Control Director, and whatever they tell me to do I will do.
He continued on to say that he intended to be vaccinated, but that he understood that he was not in a high risk category:
We want to get vaccinated. We think it's the right thing to do. We will stand in line like everybody else. And when folks say it's our turn, that's when we'll get it.
He said he expected that his daughters would receive the vaccine first, and "I suspect that I may come fairly far down the line."

On the face of it, this is a fairly masterful piece of crisis communication.  Through his example, Obama conveyed three important messages:
  • Follow the current recommendations of HHS and the CDC, whatever they are,
  • Get vaccinated and,
  • You may have to wait for a vaccine, and it's important to let those more high risk than you go first.
The reason this is so important is that the entire vaccine distribution system depends upon people being willing to wait their turn and not becoming angry or distruptive, and because the pandemic flu prevention plan relies on people being willing to follow current recommendations, even if they've changed.

There is one thing, however, that truly bothers me about this response, and that is that it is almost certainly not true.  I completely believe that Obama is going to follow the HHS and CDC recommendations and that he intends for his family and him to be vaccinated.  What I don't believe for an instant is that he is going to wait for the vaccine.

For the record, I am not arguing with whomever is going to make the decision if they think the President should get it early.  While he is at relatively low risk of dying from H1N1, his death is a very high risk event for everyone else.  If he gets the vaccine first, it's fine with me.

So the question is, how do I feel -- how do you feel -- about him lying about it.  One major rule of crisis communication is that you don't lie, even if you think people shouldn't know about something.  That's because when your lie is found out, no one will listen to you on anything else.  On the other hand, it's a lot more difficult to convey that people should wait their turn for the vaccine when your turn is on a completely different system than everyone else's.

In July, President Obama was asked if he would like to be covered by his proposed health insurance plan, and he said,
You know, I would be happy to abide by the same benefit package. I will just be honest with you. I'm the president of the United States, so I've got a doctor following me every minute which is why I say this is not about me. I've got the best health care in the world. I'm trying to make sure that everybody has good health care, and they don't right now.
This is the sort of answer I would have preferred him to give to the H1N1 question.  He could have said,
We will go with the recommendations of the CDC and HHS.  That most likely means that we will be vaccinated.  And because I'm the President, the secret service may well have their own ideas of when I should be vaccinated.  But if they tell me to wait, I will wait, because I know that people in my age group are fairly low risk.
You can argue that technically he didn't lie -- he said he would follow the recommendations and get vaccinated "when it's our turn."  I think that would have more credibility if he acknowledged that his turn is likely before almost anyone else's.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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