As the measles outbreak spread last month, Disneyland executives sent a series of emails to California health officials asking them to emphasize that the theme park was not responsible for the illnesses and was safe to visit, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.
There is no evidence Disneyland — or health officials, who incorporated at least some of Disneyland’s suggestions — tried to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak or mislead the public. Nor is it unusual for companies to try to get public officials’ ear during a crisis.
But the email exchange pulls back the curtain on what can be a delicate process and shows the extent to which Disneyland was worried about the outbreak’s effect on “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
As the infections multiplied, Disneyland forwarded suggestions to the California Department of Public Health and tried to insert language into an update from the Orange County Health Care Agency, according to correspondence spanning the first two weeks of the outbreak. The emails were obtained through a public records request.
In one exchange, a Disneyland official wanted the state to make it clear the park was not responsible for the outbreak. In another, Disneyland wanted the state to clarify that it was safe for vaccinated people to visit the theme park. In that instance, the state updated its website to address Disneyland’s concern.
More than 70 people in California — including six Disneyland employees — and about two dozen others in six states, Mexico and Canada have been sickened in the outbreak. While measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, the illness has reappeared in recent years, brought in from overseas and transmitted to Americans who didn’t get vaccinated.
On Thursday, Disneyland spokeswoman Lisa Haines said the resort was in constant contact with health authorities during the outbreak “in order to ensure that factual and accurate information flowed both ways to avoid confusion and properly inform the public.”
First word of the outbreak came Jan. 7 when California authorities confirmed a cluster of infections in people who visited Disney’s California theme parks days before Christmas. The next week, Disneyland Resort’s vice president of communications emailed state health agency spokesman Ron Owens, laying out her desire to advise the public that measles is highly contagious and can only be prevented through vaccination.
“Basically, our goal is to ensure people know that the exposure period at the Disneyland Resort is now over, that this has nothing to do with Disneyland and this could happen anywhere,” Cathi Killian wrote. She added: “Can you please let us know if you are able to help us on this front?”
The state health department’s website included similar language. State health spokeswoman Anita Gore told the AP in an email: “When clarification is needed, we make adjustments where necessary.”
Killian also sent wording suggestions to the health department in Orange County, where Disneyland is situated, for a news release. In that instance, Dr. Matthew Zahn, the county’s medical director for epidemiology, said he had no problem with the proposed wording but saw no need to include it, the records show.
Deanne Thompson, a spokeswoman for the county health department, told the AP that Disneyland made “no attempt to control or pressure” the department to incorporate any suggestions.
In one of the email exchanges, Disneyland’s chief medical officer, Dr. Pamela Hymel, forwarded to California’s top epidemiologist, Dr. Gil Chavez, a statement from Disneyland’s public relations arm with “some points,” including: “It is absolutely safe to visit these places, including the Disneyland Resort, if you are vaccinated.”
Chavez replied that Disneyland’s statement was “100 percent consistent” with what he said publicly a day earlier, when he announced that it was fine to visit Disneyland with the proper vaccinations but that those who haven’t gotten their shots should stay away. Chavez went ahead and had a version of Disneyland’s statement posted on the state health department’s website.
Crisis communications experts said that it’s not uncommon for companies to make suggestions during a disease outbreak and that their view can be helpful as long as they don’t try to distort the message.
“At the end of the day, you are trying to balance potentially competing interests, but you are also trying to give people the best advice possible,” said Glen Nowak, a former spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now heads the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia.