After a mild panic caused by the measles outbreak last month, The Associated Press revealed some documents showing that Disneyland executives have been communicating with California health officials, asking them to stress the fact that the park is safe to be visited by vaccinated people. They also want the public to know that the board and the staff working at Disneyland are not directly responsible for the outbreak.
This message exchange is not to be frowned upon, as it is not unusual for companies to get on the good side of public officials during various crises. There is also no evidence to show that either Disneyland or health authorities – which eventually approved some of the park’s suggestions – tried to minimize the seriousness of the measles outbreak.
However, this situation put a spotlight on a rather delicate process. Disneyland’s executives are worried about the disease’s effect on “The Happiest Place on Earth”, even though they alerted the health department, and then worked with them towards warning the public about the spreading of the virus.
In the first stages of the epidemic, Disneyland sent suggestions to the California Department of Public Health regarding their recommendations about the park. Their email exchange was obtained by filing a public records request. Firstly, a Disneyland official wanted the health department to remind visitors that they are not responsible for the outbreak. Secondly, the theme parked asked the state to reassure people that visiting is safe for vaccinated people. After the second email, the state released an update, addressing the Disneyland’ concern on its website.
Throughout six states of the US, the number of contaminated people has already reached 113, with more than 70 cases only in California – including six Disneyland employees. The disease has also spread over the borders, reaching Mexico and Canada. Even though the measles virus was declared completely removed from the United States back in 2000, it has recently reappeared, brought from overseas and infecting Americans who were not completely vaccinated against it.
After the revealed information about the message exchange, Lisa Haines, Disneyland spokeswoman, gave a statement on Thursday about the transparency that exists between the park and the health authorities. She said that they kept in constant contact, in order to make sure that only accurate information was released to the public. Since it is very easy to create a mass panic due to improper information of the public, Disneyland wanted to avoid any confusion.
First unsettling news confirming a possible outbreak appeared in January 7, when California authorities reported a group of infected people who had just visited Disney’s theme park before Christmas. Health investigators, as well as Disneyland’s medical team, identified together people who were in contact with the infected staff, and also provided necessary vaccinations and immunity blood tests for all the employees.
The very next week, Disneyland’s vice president of communications asked state health agency representative, Ron Owens, to issue a warning about the highly contagious disease and to advise the public to help prevent an outbreak by vaccination. Afterwards, Cathi Killian asked the state if they can help by letting people know that the park is no longer a risky exposure area, and that what happened at Disneyland could have happen anywhere.
Anita Gore, state health spokeswoman, replied in the same manner, stating that the necessary adjustments will be made, if any clarification is needed. Killian also sent suggestions to the health department in Orange County, the host of Disneyland, preparing a statement for the news. Even though the county’s medical director for epidemiology, Dr. Matthew Zahn, had no problem with the Killian’s recommendations, he said that he did not see the need to include it.
Deanne Thompson, a representative from the county health department, emphasized that Disneyland did not make any pressures for their suggestions to be incorporated, and did not attempt to exercise control where it wasn’t needed.
Another email exchange was between Dr. Pamela, Disneyland’s chief medical officer and Dr. Gil Chavez, one of California’s top epidemiologists. It contained the recommendation that Disneyland Resort is absolutely safe to visit, if you are vaccinated. Chavez agreed with Disneyland’s suggestion on the matter that people who weren’t vaccinated should stay away, but everyone else was safe to visit. Consequently, that statement appeared on the state health department’s website.
Following this situation, many crisis communications experts confirm that companies will often make such suggestions during health outbreaks, and that it is not a harmful policy, as long as they keep the information accurate and the situation transparent.
Glen Nowak, a former representative for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that there is a delicate balance that needs to be protected, between taking care of your business’ interests, and also trying to handle the situation in the best way for the people you are working with.
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