The coronavirus has been a challenge for the PR industry from day one. Still, for those on the healthcare side of communications, the pandemic has forced unique obstacles upon them as their frontline co-workers battled this worldwide threat. Even the most prepared organizations and departments were tested by the enormity of this once-in-a-century medical crisis.
I recently attended a livestream event where media relations specialists from some of the country’s top hospitals spoke about COVID comms. They reviewed what it was like to handle the media onslaught that started almost immediately back in early 2020 and has not let up since.
The consistent message among them was the importance of transparency. In the first days and weeks of the pandemic, things were moving fast, and news was breaking at an incredible pace. The speed, the spread, and the unknowns were enough to make even the most seasoned healthcare PR pros have to think way outside the box. Being upfront on delivering information was crucial.
The tidal wave of requests for expert opinions from the medical community came flooding into the comms departments; “what is going on?”, “how contagious is this” and “how can I stay safe?” were among just a few of the questions the public was wanting information about.
Jenny Nowatzke, Senior Media Relations Specialist at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago added some valuable insights during the episode about the ways they responded to the pandemic. They included:
- Establishing a team of media-savvy physicians who can take on media questions and requests like this example with mental health during COVID-19.
- Providing the doctors with media training on how to deal with technology they may not have been familiar with like doing interviews on Zoom.
- Teaching nurses and other medical personnel how to shoot videos with their phones to create personal content that could be used in stories.
- As the pandemic raged on and started impacting Hispanic communities hard, they had bi-lingual physicians at the ready to help speak to these individuals via media interviews and press conferences.
Marvin Stockwell, Director of Media Relations at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, had an observation that I found interesting regarding science. “One thing about COVID-19 is that it has created an elevated interest in the actual science of the virus. The public wants to get down into the weeds with information so communicating the science is crucial; you can’t just wing it.”
Having that ability to communicate the science behind the virus in a clear and consistent manner has been paramount during COVID-19, especially as cases surged. Add to that the testing challenges, mental health demands, non-critical procedures being postponed or canceled, and healthcare communicators were looking at unparalleled challenges. And not just for the public but for their fellow employees within their healthcare organizations. In this environment, the ability to provide the most critical information to staff, patients and others, using the proper channels at the right time, had never been more critical.
Many healthcare organizations worked together across their PR, marketing and digital teams to employ a proactive, highly flexible strategy and outreach plan that was ready for the many shifts over the course of the pandemic. The medical comms pros on the panel I watched mobilized their teams to create battle plans that put the best people in place to take on the crisis. In addition to using broadcast spots, print and social media, they determined which physicians and staff would be the best spokespeople to be out front as the COVID-19 crisis evolved.
From the initial discovery of the virus in the US, through the surges, their commitment to delivering timely and useful information has never wavered. And throughout the process, they’ve had to spend time managing misinformation about mask-wearing, therapeutics and other topics.
As America now enters into the menacing cold weather season, and coronavirus cases are rising at levels never seen before, there are some signs of hope. In the last two weeks, Pfizer and Moderna have announced that their vaccines appear to both be over 90% effective against COVID-19. The public is looking for any good news on the virus, which seems to be just what we needed at this time. Our friends in healthcare comms know news like this will come with many questions, but I am confident they will get us the information we need to know in a clear and well-informed way. Just like they’ve done from the beginning.
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