In this second of a two-part episode, we peek into the trenches of the COVID-19 response with a communications professional who leads the state of Minnesota's public health messaging efforts. His unique insight into the challenges presented by this pandemic brings into clear focus what is needed to build resiliency in our public health messaging efforts and to ensure future crises and emergency risk communications success.
Robert L. Jennings
National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC)
Minnesota Department of Health
PHS Ep 1 Part 2 Transcript - Risk Communication in the Age of COVID-19
INTRO: This is Public Health Speaks. I’m Robert Jennings.
On this episode… as our nation starts to see a significant downward trend in COVID-19 infections… and a reopening of our social and economic way of life, public health communication experts are now beginning to assess the effectiveness of current crisis and risk communication messaging efforts.
INTRO: Welcome to Public Health Speaks… a podcast series brought to you by the National Public Health Information Coalition. With each episode, we explore the successes and challenges in public health messaging and ways to tackle the most pressing communication issues facing state and local jurisdictions and our nation.
In this second of a two-part episode, we peek into the trenches of the COVID-19 response with a communications professional who leads the state of Minnesota’s public health messaging efforts. His unique insight into the challenges presented by this pandemic brings into clear focus what is needed to build resiliency in our public health agencies to ensure future crises and risk communications success.
HOST: Joining me today is Michael Schommer, Communications Director with the Minnesota Department of Health. Michael has been in this role for more than 8 years and like many other state and local communication professionals he has been on the front lines since day one responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks for joining me, Michael.
SCHOMMER: Well, thank you, Robert.
HOST: So as I mentioned, for more than a year, public health communicators have been on the front lines of our nation's response to COVID-19. In many situations, they are the primary spokesperson and public face of the organization. How are you and your colleagues holding up under the intense pressures of the job?
SCHOMMER: Well, Robert, you're absolutely right. It's been a, an intense grind over the last year and I can't say enough about the stamina and the commitment I've seen from my colleagues, not only at the Minnesota department of health, but in local public health agencies and at the national level and in other jurisdictions around the country. It’s really been inspiring to see the commitment and how that sustained people over a duration of something I think many of us would never have expected. I
do think it's, you know, it's important to acknowledge that this has taking a toll. I
think it's not only the hours, the emotional burden, the work, so much stress. There's
just a lot going on. And we know in public health, of course, that there's a cost that
we all pay for that.
SCHOMMER: And I think it's important that we look to do whatever we can to tend
to our own mental health and our own wellbeing. I think it's a common issue
sometimes for people, those who are helpers, to really prioritize the needs of others
and maybe sometimes not do as much self care. I think, you know, what we've tried
to do at the health department in Minnesota is really, at least within the team that
I'm working with, try to emphasize that if people need a day or if they need a few
days, try to share that burden, make sure people have what they need in terms of
support both within the team, and then also giving them the time that they need to
reconnect with their family or whatever they might have going on. You know, just
looking out for each other. I think having that sort of connection and backing each
other up and, having a sense of we're all in this together, that has helped, but there's
no denying that this has had a cost.
HOST: You have had a unique challenge in your state, responding to the pandemic,
as well as to the civil unrest occurring. At the same time in the streets of
Minneapolis with the death of George Floyd, what were some of the
communications strategies your state use to effectively respond to that dual crisis?
SCHOMMER: Amid the pandemic response, you know, when you have a year,
almost a year and a half now of a pandemic, we know that other things were going
to come up and that you needed to be able to respond to multiple things.
I don't think any of us would have foreseen things going quite the way they did in
our jurisdiction or in a lot of other places where they've had tragic events. I think one
of the most important things that we've seen is the ability to bring in outside help
and not to try to just handle everything with the existing staffing or the existing
resources that you may have had.
One of the things that we have done in Minnesota is used other parts of state
government, other partner organizations that we have normally working with us all
the time to try to bring them in, to kind of expand the team and add people to help
with different parts of the response. Especially last spring and summer with a lot of
what was going on, it really helped to be able to expand and have other people
focused on sort of the day-to-day response on the public safety side, on the equity
side and really specializing in that area. But then also working with those of us who
were still front and center focused on the COVID response, because, you know, if we
were going to, for example, do a media briefing at this time last year, you really
needed to make sure that you were acknowledging and speaking to some of what
was going on in those other spaces. And I think that's been a big part of it is having
that ability to have people and a team of people focused on each of the issues while
still connecting with those who are responding to the other parts of the various
crises at hand and, and having that sort of specialization, but a collaboration mix I
think has helped us. Certainly there were a lot of things go back and say, well, you
know, in the future, there's a lot of lessons learned we'd want to make sure that we
draw those right lessons during the response. But I think that sort of, that mix of
specialization and collaboration has helped us.
HOST: So you've talked about some of the challenging parts of the response, but
what areas have been a surprising success?
SCHOMMER: I will say one area that I've been really pleased and surprised at how
smoothly things have gone is in the idea of having a team of people and really an
entire agency worth of people who had previously largely been working within the
office, having them all work remote and still in the really intense demanding
environment, be able to effectively get things done.
I really have to struggle to think over the last year, have there been times where
there was a real problem because we were working remotely and I think obviously
there's some collaboration, some sort of informal conversations that you miss when
you're working remotely, but I've been really impressed to see how largely we have
not missed a beat working remotely.
I think people have really stepped up and recognized when it's time to call somebody
when it's time to connect, you know, off of a Teams call or a Zoom call and just to
have those different ways of connecting and communicating with different parts of
the team. Sure, there are some things in terms of information flow across teams that
we might want to improve, but I think it's been inspiring to see how well and how
professional the response has been given that sort of additional issue that none of us
really had a lot of experience in terms of many of us have worked a day or so here
we're there remotely out of the office, but for something this long, this sustained
and this intense, I think it's been really, it's been a surprising success.
HOST: Well, that's encouraging news. And this is said to be the first pandemic of its
kind in the age of social media, cell phones and instant access to information
anywhere in the world. We are now said to be in the middle of an infodemic. How
has that complicated the work of public health communicators, and what can be
done about it?
SCHOMMER: Even before the pandemic, well before the pandemic, back in 2018,
2019, we were talking about information as a core product of our department. And
how do you make sure that you're producing it, providing it in a way that is not only
accurate and useful, but also accessible to people, making sure that all of our
stakeholders know where to go for information, you know, that we have good
systems for sharing it for tracking it for compiling it.
That's a big challenge and the more capability we have through our technology to
gather information and to assess it, I think that's a big question. So I think part of
what you're asking is how do you, how do we as communicators deal with not only
the new capabilities that we have and the reality that we have more information to
share, and we're able to compile more information about what we're seeing in
trends and all that, but also, how do you deal with those competing, efforts to
perhaps develop information and, like you said, misinformation and disinformation.
I think part of it is to continue that work that we had first started in 2018, 2019,
making sure that the public health information that we are pulling together is as
relevant and accessible as possible. That's one thing that I think many of us who are
public health communicators have long struggled with is the idea of how do you take
what can be very complex and nuanced information. So I think part of the answer to
how do you deal with misinformation and disinformation is to be as good as possible
about producing information that is relevant, accessible, timely, and just making sure
that people understand where they can go for it, and being available to help as
people have questions about it.
There are lots of challenges, obviously they go with that, but I think there's a lot of
attention being paid to the challenges. But I think there are some real successes that
we can build on in how information has flown during the pandemic, how it's gotten
out public information, I think from health departments is still fairly well-respected.
We do hear a lot about declining trust in institutions and in government. But I think
overall there's still a very large portion of our society that does want good
information from us and is very interested in that. So the more we can do to get that
to them in a format that's useful and relevant, I think that will help a lot.
HOST: So speaking of adapting, I know you and many of our listeners are well aware
of the standing emergency and risk communication principles. In your opinion, do
we have to transform those or adapt those principles to this new transformed
SCHOMMER: I think the core principles have held up really well. In terms of how
people process information, what things we need to look out for, what are some of
the foundational aspects of risk communication. We've seen a lot of that bear out
over the course of the pandemic in terms of how we evolve it. I think it's not so
much the core principles perhaps that need to evolve, but how we translate that into
giving people information that's accessible. And to me, the conversation isn't so
much about the core principles, because I think the core principles are based on
some fairly sound psychological and sociological principles and communications
research and how people process information. I do think that it's up to all of us to
figure out within our own contexts of our jurisdictions how do we take that really
good core understanding of how information is processed and used and retained.
And to some degree sometimes not used. How do you take those insights and
translate them into something that works in your area. I think there will be
challenges ahead especially in terms of competing narratives and misinformation,
One of the really important things I think is for us to maintain that credibility and
build our, the public health brand. And I think doing good work and providing that
information in context, in an accessible, relevant way, will do us good in the longterm
in this area.
HOST: Well, very good, Michael, and thank you for providing your insights today.
And thank you for joining me.
SCHOMMER: Thank you. Nice to be here, Robert.