How the FDA Lost Our Trust During the Meningitis Outbreak

In the face of the meningitis outbreak, which was caused by tainted drugs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should be leading the crisis communication.

But they’re not.

That responsibility has fallen to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).Tweet from the CDC about the meningitis outbreak

Why? Because we, as the public and consumers of media, trust the CDC. We don’t trust the FDA.

The FDA should be embarrassed.

Jim Garrow pointed out on his Face of the Matter blog — Building Trust is an Everyday Job — that the FDA should be in charge of this outbreak, since it was caused by tainted drugs, which fall under the FDA’s purview. The CDC oversees contagious disease outbreaks, which this is not.

Yet, according to a recent Mashable article, “. . .Twitter users searched for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) more often than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).” Furthermore, the CDC is regularly updating the media through conference calls about what’s being done about the outbreak, not the FDA.

Why is that?

We Trust the CDC, We Don’t Trust the FDA

Believe me, there is a distinct division between agencies. They usually don’t cooperate or communicate, even when they’re treading some of the same ground. I can only imagine there has been some jockeying for position, for credibility, and for Top Dog-ness between the two three-letter agencies.

So when the CDC, and not the FDA, started holding media conference calls, we should have gotten a clue about the problem, and gotten a good indication about who the media (and the public) trusts and who they don’t. Who has done a good job of earning our trust, and who hasn’t.

Who uses social media well, and who doesn’t.

Tweets from the FDA

Irony, thy name is FDA. (I honestly wish I was making this up.)

We trust the CDC, because we see them on social media more. We trust the CDC because they communicate with the public more. And we trust the CDC, because they tend to talk to us more like people and less like little children.

The CDC has been getting some great press coverage over the last couple of years, thanks to things like the CDC’s Zombie Preparedness campaign, which actually taught people how to prepare for a viral outbreak like pan flu. (Pretty sneaky, CDC.)

While the FDA has tweeted one time — ONCE! — about the meningitis outbreak, in between tweets about Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments of the 1960s to its 13,875 followers (seriously? I have almost as many followers as the FDA?!), the @CDCemergency account has tweeted updates 6 times to its 1.375 MILLION followers.

(Pro tip: If you’re in the middle of an outbreak of a deadly disease because of tainted drugs, it’s probably not a good idea to commemorate the historical signing of an amendment to make drugs safer. Or to tweet about that more often than you tweet about the contaminated drugs that are currently killing people.)

Any wonder why we trust the CDC more?

The Fight For Credibility and Eyeballs Begins NOW

If you want people to trust you on social media (and other) channels, you have to start using them now. If you want people to know they can turn to you when there’s a real crisis, you have to start sharing information with them before the crisis hits.

The CDC has been doing this by tweeting out important information during small crises, and treating them like practice before a big event. They communicate regularly with people, they use social media to its fullest — complete with Facebook page, Twitter accounts galore, blogs, YouTube videos, and just about anything else (hell, they even have a Google+ page for their National Prevention Information Network!). Meanwhile, the FDA’s website still has a starry night background with a dancing baby animation (okay, not really; but they’re still referring to Twitter as a microblog; it quit being a microblog in 2010.).

The short of it is this: You can’t wait until the day of a crisis to launch your crisis communication plan. That thing had to be in play months in advance. And the FDA has lost all control of this crisis, and abdicated it to the CDC.

Maybe this will be a wake-up call to the FDA that they need to do better, so the next time it happens, they can actually be prepared, and we’ll be more likely to trust them.

And you can read all about their efforts on their new Friendster page.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. I took injections in June and became very ill. I was denied treatment and was swept under the rug. I am still ill and present with symptoms. I went to the ER and was diagnosed with fatigue. what a lie. I haven’t worked in 6 months. I told the er doctor in Md I had taken steroid injection in June and he said it was too late for a spinal tap. Cover uP

    2. Shelly,

      I don’t disagree with you about the FDA and its continued botched approvals (I didn’t know about LASIK though; scary!).

      But the bigger point of this post is that the CDC is running the show when the FDA should be. Since it’s not a contagion, it doesn’t actually fall under the CDC’s purview at all.

      When you consider how competitive each agency is — the rivalry between the FBI and CIA is typical of the clashes between all government agencies; they each think the other is stupid — I’m surprised the FDA DIDN’T fight and kick and scream that they should have been in charge.

      I imagine there was a lot of behind-the-scenes arguing, but it had to be a major decision for someone to say to the FDA, “we’re not going to let you do your job, we’re going to let the CDC do it.” It would be like letting firefighters give speeding tickets and arrest people.

      The other possibility is the FDA recognized they weren’t going to be very good at this, and so they asked the CDC to step in and help, in which case, I have to give them a lot of respect for being self-aware about their capabilities.

    3. I disagree that this is a trust issue. I believe that it’s more a public awareness issue. After all, the public considers meningitis a disease and with limited knowledge of HOW this disease came into existence, they are going to search disease control, not FDA…and rightfully so.

      No matter who caused the disease outbreak, it still needs controlling, thus CDC is who should be handling this.

      The reason we DON’T trust the FDA is because of all of its botched approvals for wonder drugs and procedures that it ran through the system without due diligence. Think of the many drugs that that have been pulled off the market and how many people have been damaged by LASIK procedures which the former head of the FDA, Morris Waxler, now wants banned.

      No matter its lack of social media presence, I wouldn’t look to the FDA for info on how to control and/or receive information on meningitis outbreaks. It’s a drug administration agency, not a center for disease control.


      Shelley Webb RN