Public Health Communications in the Eye of the Pandemic Storm
November 09, 2020
By David Vossbrink, APR PRSA-SV Board Member & Communications Counsel

As public health communications experts for Santa Clara County, Britt Ehrhardt and Marianna Moles have been in the eye of the pandemic storm since January.  In a complex and contradictory environment of shifting priorities, incomplete and changing information, and competing agendas, they’ve worked with a growing and collaborative regional team to effectively inform residents, businesses, and communities about the practical measures they should take to protect themselves, their families and coworkers, and public health.

“I actually was on maternity leave when the pandemic started,” said Britt, “and I came back in March to a very challenging situation, both professionally and personally. Fortunately, Marianna was there to lead our emergency health communications in my absence. She was supported by a good team from many other County departments as well as from cities and organizations throughout the South Bay who helped spread our information.”

Intense News Media

Santa Clara County was an early leader to carry out strong health measures in response to Covid, and its news conferences were covered by news outlets across the country as everyone seemed to be looking here for news about coronavirus. The County began livestreaming news conferences early to broaden access to reporters.

 “It was pretty intense as media inquiries from across the country and around the world exploded during the first several months,” said Marianna.

“We jumped from a couple dozen media inquiries in January to more than 400 in April,” she said. “We immediately set up a dedicated media line to manage the flood of calls, and we also established our Twitter account as the go-to source of news and information for reporters that continues to serve us well.

“We were delighted that Rachel Maddow held up one of our news releases as a straightforward model during a time of much national confusion. That affirmed our complete commitment to accuracy, honesty, and transparency that has guided our pandemic communications.

“And CBS National News commended us for having one of most thorough and useful news conferences they had seen on this topic.”

Relationships Are Critically Important

According to Britt, existing relationships with professional counterparts across the Bay region, as well as within Santa Clara County, were essential for developing plans and essential messages and for sharing information.

“These relationships predated the pandemic, and they were invaluable as we started to move faster and faster. As they say in the emergency management business, a crisis is the worst time to be exchanging business cards. Those relationships are channels of communication and trust that must to be available long before you really need them if we’re going to get the job done well. ”

Reaching Out to Diverse Communities

Santa Clara County is very diverse with a large number of immigrant communities and multiple languages besides English spoken in homes. The health communicators had to use many ways to share information with multicultural audiences and in many languages.

“Fortunately we have many team members who represent the major languages we need,” said Britt. “We’ve been able to take advantage of their skills and knowledge to prepare printed materials, speak to non-English media, and translate our web and social media information.  They also had to do it fast, sometimes turning around vital information and translations in hours or overnight as conditions and knowledge rapidly evolved.

She also noted that the County has public health staff members who work directly with people in communities that are especially vulnerable to Covid. They’ve become the eyes and ears in the field and help the communicators to continuously refine their health messages to be more effective.

As Marianna also noted, they used the County’s relationships with business and community organizations to share information and push it out to stakeholders, which also helps to strengthen credibility of the message.

Correcting Misinformation

An ongoing challenge has been the need to push back on misinformation that has become an increasing problem, especially related to science-based issues that often are not certain in black and white.

“We will correct facts as we see them, whether in news reports or in social media,” said Marianna. “It’s been quite a shock to see how common misinformation spreads on social media, and we have to actively moderate our channels to provide accurate information. It’s become a never-ending obligation.”

A Shout Out for Public Sector Communicators

“I’m really proud of what we do in government communications,” said Britt, who has also worked at the federal level with the National Institutes of Health. “We make a genuine difference in the quality of life for the people we serve, and this year we know we’re saving lives by providing timely, accurate, and practical information to the people who need it most.

Often working unrecognized behind the scenes, as PR people typically are, public-sector communicators also face the challenge of having minimal budgets compared to their private-sector colleagues. This puts a premium on creativity and collaboration, and even passion, to get the message out and affect behaviors that promote a healthier community.

Britt shared what John Adams wrote to his son more than 200 years ago: “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or other. If wise men decline it others will not: if honest men refuse it, others will not.”

Final Words: Encourage Health!

Britt wrapped up the Friday Forum conversation with a strong public health reminder to all our PR colleagues and their companies and organizations.

“Please encourage your frontline workers to get a Covid test at least once a month, and find ways to support them with a corporate culture that provides the time, insurance, and guidance to protect their health and safety. Free testing is also available via the County.

“Please advise your employees to NOT come to work if they’re feeling sick, again with your corporate support, policies, and encouragement. And now that we’re in flu season, please encourage everyone to get their flu shots now. With this common purpose, we can all stay safer and healthier.”


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