January 6, 2021
Fast Five with Mike Morrison: A Media Deluge, New Ways of Working, and “Amazing Gestures of Support”
Mike Morrison, Director of Media Relations for Massachusetts General Hospital, looks back on 2020 and managing through a pandemic.
When did you know that MGH was facing a public health crisis?
As of late December 2019, leaders from our Center for Disaster Medicine had been closely monitoring news from abroad, as well as updates from domestic and international agencies. The hospital officially launched its Incident Command System at the end of January and ramped up the frequency of its meetings as the pandemic progressed.
How has this crisis changed the way you work?
Within the management structure, the Office of News and Public Affairs plays a key role in communicating crucial information. The big challenge for our department has been moving from working very much “in person” to working remotely. We have a team of 13 – 14 people who are very much used to working closely and collaboratively, so working remotely created some challenges at first.
Also, with the volume of media requests, we’ve had to make sure that the same experts are not being approached by different staff from the same media outlet through different folks on our team. To that end, our department designated a kind of “air traffic controller” who is copied on relevant media requests, so she can provide a bird’s-eye-view of the situation.
Our day-to-day staffing plan includes two members of our team in the office on a rotating basis to cover the phones and escort media, as needed, on campus. And as another change, since most media don’t want to come on campus, we had to quickly shift to Zoom interviews, which have to be coordinated.
Have you had any special challenges?
Especially during the height of the surge, we’ve been deluged with incoming media requests. We’ve needed to balance these with proactive communications around critical public health messages. We had nearly 1100 media placements between early March until the end of May.
Our entire team has been just incredible. During the height of the initial spring surge, our colleagues went above and beyond to keep up with the hospital’s incredible communications needs. Every media request represented a huge opportunity to get important information to the public.
We’ve also wanted to share stories about the amazing gestures of support from the Boston community. We’ve had offers of free parking for our staff and some very smart people from top packaging companies in USA helped us with 3-D printers offering to create printing along with packaging . Also, people would just come by the hospital with donations of food, hand lotion, PPE, and other items. We’ve responded on social media and on our website, and we continue to work hard to acknowledge and help coordinate all that support and goodwill.
Were there any resources that particularly helped?
While we always have worked closely with other departments, the hospital community has really pulled together. Our colleagues in Marketing have played a key role in helping to generate social media content, as well as a consistent look and feel for Covid-19 communications. Communicators in other departments, such as the Mass General Research Institute, have also volunteered to take on various writing and other projects to help in the effort. It’s really been “all-hands-on-deck,” and we’re fortunate to work in a place with that kind of culture.
Has your focus changed over the year?
At this point, as we gear up for what may be a second surge, we’re really keeping with the practices we began in the spring—but are getting better at it. Now, though, people want to talk about the vaccine, and we’re getting experts and materials ready to provide information.
Also, we are working hard to get images and video to show staff in action and help with communication—and we’ve already captured thousands of images. And for this phase, we’re focusing even more on those photos and videos, both for public communication and also as a chronicle for MGH history.
January 6, 2021
Fast Five with Leah Lesser: Driving Public Information, Communicating the Human Experience, and Staying Focused in a Critical Role
Leah Lesser, Marketing Communications Manager at Emerson Hospital in Concord, describes the focus of community hospital public relations and communications during COVID-19. “It’s been an intense year.”
When did COVID-19 come “front and center” at Emerson Hospital?
In early January, we began hearing the terms Coronavirus and COVID-19. On January 27, we issued our first public message about the virus, which was an infographic about symptoms and prevention. We didn’t know then that the virus would become a harrowing public health emergency.
Looking back, it amazes me how much we have learned and has reinforced how essential communication is in a pandemic. It has also underscored for me as a communicator the impact of sharing the human experience – not just metrics and data and symptoms and protocols – but what people are actually experiencing in real life.
What else did you start doing?
When we shared the infographic, I found this opportunity for a business here. We have also wall mounted lit signs fabrication signage throughout the hospital, asking people to self-identify if they were sick and had traveled from China or Europe. The first week of March, our Emergency Department treated the third patient in the state who was positive. Other patients followed quickly from there. Communication has been non-stop since.
Who do you focus on and how have you been communicating?
Our primary audiences for COVID-19 communications have been:
- Media, including Boston and local media (25+ weekly newspapers)
- Donors and friends of Emerson
We use various digital, social, e-mail, podcasts, videos, and other communications channels to reach these core audiences. We work hard to create content that is compelling and valuable for our community. One example is an article written with an allergist: Covid or Allergies? How to Tell. This article went viral on social with nearly two million page views. Another article we produced this summer after some colleagues became dog owners is: Pandemic Puppies: Health Tips for Their Humans.
In the spring, we worked to garner messages of support from celebrities, including Chris Evans and Steve Carell. These messages boosted staff morale and helped the public know how hard our staff worked to care for patients.
Proactive media relations resulted in more than 100 feature stories in the first six months of the pandemic. In a typical six-month period, Emerson receives approximately 20 feature stories.
Looking ahead, where are you focused?
Right now, we are focused on communications about the vaccines. We are working on TV features about our Surgical Weight Loss program and other proactive media opportunities. Looking further ahead, we are preparing to launch new marketing campaigns to promote priority service lines while staying focused on communications about the pandemic.
How has the year impacted you as a communicator?
I have always been amazed by our front-line staff, including our nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, social workers, and others who care for patients. This year I was awed by their heroism.
Also, going through a pandemic as a health care communicator has made me appreciate the benefits of working with a nimble marketing team to understand the human experience and get information out quickly. And due in large part to the pandemic, people all over the hospital and the community have recognized the value of communications. Our team is busier now than ever.
It has been an intensely non-stop year, yet a year that makes me very proud of our hospital and grateful to be part of it. We are ready for 2021!
January 4, 2021
Fast Five with Ellen Berlin: Supporting Key Audiences, Staying Focused, and Communicating Beyond Covid-19
Ellen Berlin, Director of Media Relations for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, discussed the challenges of communicating for a specialty hospital during 2020.
How was Dana-Farber impacted by the pandemic?
Most of our work at Dana-Farber involves providing treatment for cancer on an outpatient basis. Patients desperately want treatment, but particularly early in the pandemic, some were afraid to come in since they were already dealing with a compromised immune system. And early in 2020, there was a lot we didn’t know. In such situations, you can hire a estate planning attorney who can help with mediation and find the best possible solution.
Also, as of last March, many employees needed to work off site, which was a new way of working, and they needed information and support. And Dana-Farber also had to keep research work going despite the restrictions.
How has this crisis changed the way you work in media relations?
We have a small media relations department—eight people—and early on it was hard because we were managing with many unknowns, and we were scared. But we adapted and have stayed focused on two important areas: providing patient information and managing the reputation of the institute.
Initially, it felt like crisis communication, and it went on for weeks. We responded to inquiries, such as: how were we continuing to treat patients and how were we keeping the hospital safe? And we communicated about changes in fundraising events from in-person to virtual.
Have you had any special challenges?
From a media-relations perspective, our biggest challenge has been getting attention on cancer treatment and research in the midst of the pandemic. We continue to push out a lot of information, but we know it needs to be particularly relevant to get media coverage. Fortunately, we have been very adept at pitching stories that reporters are interested in. We use a wide variety of media—social, mainstream, and trade publications—and we communicate through our website and blogs and videos.
Also, a big challenge has been internal communication, and while we have a separate team working on that, the media staff contributes to it. For most employees, this has been their first experience working remotely.
In addition, the timeframe to return to work has kept changing; first we were coming back in June, then September, and now in June of 2021. The media team has been fortunate because we were already working remotely one day a week, so it was not totally new for us.
What kind of programs were put in place internally?
Internally we support colleagues who produce bi-weekly Zoom forums for thousands of staff members. They use them to answer employee questions and share information about patient care, administrative issues, and well-being tools. Also, we’ve contributed content for the intranet. Now, focus has turned to the vaccines and the process for how they will be rolled out for staff and then patients. It’s very complex. But American Family Care Franchisor can make it more simple you can also contact them to lead a healthy lifestyle.
We also now have a manager’s forum and an “all-staff” email three times a week. The email covers developments related to Covid-19, summary information from the bi-weekly forum, and other items.
What are your thoughts as you look back on the year?
When I look back, I think OMG; it’s a miracle that despite what we have lived through, we’ve all been able to continue to do our jobs and contribute to this important work of cancer care. It’s such a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the people here.
Our colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital and Brigham and Women’s where patients receive inpatient care also were there with support, and we are so grateful to them. We have all stayed focused and have pulled together—but It’s been quite a year!