By Richard Lee
At Monday’s White House press briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reacted angrily to a question from CBS reporter Paula Reid. Fauci had just clarified remarks he made a day earlier in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, and Reid wanted to know if he was making the clarification voluntarily or if the president had directed him to do so.
Reid’s question not only angered Fauci, it set off a wave a criticism from pundits and politicians who felt the question was inappropriate.
But it was a question that needed to be asked.
Fauci’s CNN interview caused controversy because he said lives would have been saved if efforts to mitigate COVID-19 had started earlier, adding there had been pushback to early mitigation. The next day he was paraded out in front of the White House press corps to clarify those comments while the president watched him from a few feet away.
He did answer Reid’s question and made clear it was his decision. From my perspective as a former government communications professional, Fauci needed to say that, but he should not have waited to be asked. A definitive statement at the start of his remarks would have quelled speculation that he only was clariyfing his comments because of pressure from the White House.
I also would have handled Fauci differently from the start of the pandemic. He is a medical professional, not a politician. Let him do his important medical work and get him a seasoned spokesperson – someone who knows that saying things such as “early mitigation would have saved lives” and words such as “pushback” are landmines that should be avoided.
A good communications professional also would have anticipated the Jake Tapper question that set off the controversy. When I prepped people for interviews, we anticipated the toughest questions and crafted talking points to address them.
Fauci looked like he was caught off-guard by the question, so he stumbled. Yes, it was a “gotcha” question, but it was asked, and he needed to answer. We communications professionals always advised the government leaders we worked for to “side with angels,” to say something that everyone agrees with. I would have suggested that Fauci be ready with a response like: “Jake, we all want to save as many lives as possible. It’s difficult and not terribly productive to deal in hypotheticals. My focus right now, and the president’s focus, is on saving as many American lives as we can.”
One last thought from my perspective as one who spent many years in government communications: It is easy to second guess and play Monday morning quarterback. Reacting in real time in front of a camera is a totally different story.
Richard Lee is executive director of the Jandoli Institute and an associate professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.