Dr. Anthony S. (Tony) Fauci is the Director of the National Institutes of Health’s Institute on Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIH/NIAID) and may be the most widely recognized and effective spokesman on global health issues. Why does he have such a high profile and why is he such an accomplished communicator?
Two factors give him an immediate advantage; location and public perceptions about infectious diseases.
With 6,800+ journalists in Washington, DC (more than one for every 100 residents [ 1 ]), the city is a vibrant media hub with representatives from every news service from around the globe. Considering the aggressive and accelerating need for content, driven by 24-hour cable news and internet outlets, this is clearly one place that seeks out and welcomes a compelling story.
The other advantage derives from a combination of the public’s lack of knowledge about infectious diseases and its penchant for rapid alarm about their spread. No doubt fanned by some media looking for a good story, people seem ever ready to fear the next pandemic. In that environment, someone like Fauci, who can give authoritative answers and provide needed perspective, becomes a sought-after source.
Beyond that though, Fauci has…
Since Fauci was appointed head of NIAD in 1984, there have been five directors of NIH, six directors of CDC, six directors of WHO, and seven US Surgeons General. Of the 20 directors of the various NIH Institutes, Fauci has a full 9 years of tenure over the next longest-server director. [ 2 ] So by now he has become a familiar and trusted figure.
Fauci could have been the quintessential bureaucrat, venturing off the NIH campus only to testify in support of NIAID’s annual budget, but instead he has actively engaged in all manner of public outreach and education.
- By his own count, Fauci has testified over 210 times on Capitol Hill, probably more than anyone else in history. [ 3 ] Of the 119 videos of Fauci on C-Span, only ten deal with the budget; the rest cover everything from Zika, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, flu, bioterrorism, antibiotic resistance, H1NI (swine flu), smallpox, SARS, West Nile, stem cell research, TB, bird flu, to civil rights, and much more. [ 4 ]
- He’s appeared on all of the Sunday morning talk shows [ 5 ] as well as The Colbert Report, Charlie Rose, The Diane Rehm Show, Anderson Cooper 360°, Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, The Rachel Maddow Show, and many more.
- He was the architect and driving force behind the creation of PEPFAR.
- He discovered the mechanism that converts HIV to AIDS.
- He discovered a cure for the formerly-fatal Wegener's granulomatosis as well as cures for lymphomatoid granulomatosis and polyarteritis nodosa. [ 6 ]
- He is the “author, coauthor, or editor of more than 1,280 scientific publications, including several textbooks.” [ 7 ]
- He’s been awarded 43 honorary doctoral degrees.
- He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
- He was awarded the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- He oversees an annual budget of $4.6 billion.
A Predisposition to Listen
During the 1980s, in the face of mounting protests by AIDS activists, and even a hanging in effigy, Fauci chose to engage and listen closely to the protesters. As a result, he changed his view on the availability of experimental drugs and became a proponent of the “parallel tracks” model, where strictly-controlled clinical trials were run in parallel with drug availability to a wider, affected population. Beyond that, his openness led him to become a bridge or trusted broker between the activists and the government, benefitting both their cause and his research. [ 8 ]
An Actual Interest in Communicating
For Fauci, communicating with the public isn’t a burden or onerous requirement of his office, but an opportunity to advance science and broaden its support and effect. In his own words:
I enjoy very much communication. I think that scientists need to communicate. The field of science needs to communicate with the general public, because the ultimate goal of science is to do good, to gain knowledge, to understand and discover things that are ultimately for the good of mankind.
One of the things that we don’t necessarily do very well all the time is communicating in language that people can understand the importance of science, and scientific advances, and what they might mean to people. So although that isn’t a scientific talent or something that has to do with your scientific capability, I find that I enjoy that. It’s relatively easy for me.
And I know that when you do communicate the importance of science to people, that will energize them to support science even more than we support it. Because science is one of the most important things that we can support in our society. [ 9 ]
An Ability to Learn to be a Better Communicator
Any number of experiences have contributed to Fauci’s increasing fluency and effectiveness in communicating. Certainly his unprecedented record of testifying before Congress, as well as observing the difficult and extended confirmation process of C. Everett Koop, have taught him much. Watching his testimony, you’ll notice that
- He’s not afraid to say that he doesn’t know. Without lots of qualifiers, he will simply say, “We don’t know” though he’s usually quick to add “But we believe…” and to then take the discussion to a higher level.
- He doesn’t view testimony as arm-wrestling or confrontational. He’s always respectful, doesn’t interrupt his questioners, and works to steer the conversations to matters of fact and not opinion.
- He understands that more often than not the value he brings to testimony or interviews is in providing perspective. He’s able to articulate for members of Congress and members of the public how to view the threat of anthrax, Ebola, pandemic flu and so much more; how to prioritize research and treatment; how to bolster our societal resiliency.
We are all of us fortunate that Tony Fauci chose to pursue a life of public service and that he early on saw communication as an essential part of that work. We can all learn from his example.
[ 2 ] Richard Hodes became Director of the National Institute on Aging in 1993, giving him a 23-year tenure.
[ 3 ] And that was in 2011. The number is certainly higher now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7aorr12rY8
[ 5 ] Face the Nation (CBS), Meet the Press (NBC), This Week (ABC), State of the Union (CNN), Fox News Sunday (Fox).
[ 8 ] You can hear Fauci discuss listening here: http://bigthink.com/videos/what-do-you-believe-9