Public Health Speaks

Journalists and PIOs Forge Important Alliance in Protecting the Public's Health

September 28, 2021 National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC) Season 2 Episode 6
Public Health Speaks
Journalists and PIOs Forge Important Alliance in Protecting the Public's Health
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we sit down with a public health communications professional to discuss how public information officers and journalists have forged important partnerships during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We will examine their respective points of view in providing critical messaging during a crisis and learn how both sides rely on each other to overcome the unprecedented challenges this pandemic has presented. 

Public Health Speaks (Season 2 - Episode 6)

 Transcript:                              Journalists and PIOs Forge Important Alliance in Protecting the Public’s Health  

 Date:                                       9/16/21

 Run time:                                 14:14
 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 communications and ways to tackle the most pressing issues facing federal, state, and local jurisdictions.     

 In this episode, we sit down with a public health communications professional to discuss how public information officers and journalists have forged important partnerships during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We will examine their respective points of view in providing critical messaging during a crisis and learn how both sides rely on each other to overcome the unprecedented challenges this pandemic has presented.  

 Joining me today is Olivia Biggs.  Olivia is the Public Information Officer for the Licking County Health Department in Newark, Ohio – which sits just outside the capital city of Columbus.  In her role, she is the agency spokesperson, manages media, social media, marketing and public relations, and community outreach. She also serves, in a dual role, as PIO for the Licking County Emergency Management Agency.  Welcome Olivia.  

Olivia: Thanks. Robert, happy to be here. 

Robert: Well it is great to have you here. So before we get started, just tell us a little bit about your health jurisdiction, your job and who you serve. 

Olivia: Sure. So I'm the public information officer for the licking county health department.  We're about one county east of Columbus, Ohio. We have about 170,000 residents here in licking county and, uh, three cities, many villages and town, 11 school districts. So that's a little bit about my jurisdiction here. And I am a one woman show here in public information for public health. I've been in health communications for about 10 years.

Robert: You were a recent panelist at the national conference on health communication, marketing and media. The session you were a part of was titled shaping a complimentary Alliance between journalists and PIOs, what the pandemic crisis has taught us. Can you tell our audience a little bit about that?

Olivia:Yeah, absolutely. I was super excited to be asked to be on this panel. What I liked about it was the session focused on bringing journalists and reporters together with public health communicators to discuss their respective points of view and providing all the critical messaging that we've been doing for 18 months out to the public during the PMs.

So each of the panelists, we examined our challenges, how we encountered it and the opportunities that became available of how we could work together on getting important public health information out to the committee. 

Robert: So on its face, it seems like this could have been a very contentious panel. Did you feel that there was tension or levels of apprehension on either side?

Olivia: Well, maybe that's the reason I actually was excited to be part of the panel. I was really interested to see how it would play out. You know, before the panel, we did have a practice session. And I do feel that that was a little bit exciting and contentious because each side was kind of coming together and we were kind of shaping of, you know, [00:03:00] how the conversation might go and how we feel about the questions.

However, really, you know, once it came down to it, we all have a level of understanding. Even though reporters and journalists, they have different goals than public health communicators. They're both equally important and we really rely on each other. So you're right. While I felt like it could have been connected.

When it came down to it, we were both, each side was very understanding that we rely on each other and that the [00:03:30] main goal for each of our jobs is to get this information out to the community. 

Robert: Very good. And, and you represent a smaller local public health jurisdiction. What were your takeaways in comparing the pandemic response in a large versus smaller local markets. 

Olivia: This was really interesting part of the panel as well, Robert, because I thought it was a really great to hear from the larger markets and the differences that they go through and getting their information out to the public rather than the [00:04:00] local jurisdictions, which like you said, is what I represent.

[00:04:03] So even though we have the same type of work, it's scaled very differently. You know, the larger markets, I'm a little bit jealous. They have a bigger team. They have more experts. So they have an actual, you know, someone who deals directly with media, they might have a social media expert. They might also have someone who focuses on Public relations, making sure that their agency is still on top of looking well, they may have a graphic designer to have a really nice graphics laid out with their communication. And so they're able to kind of wrap that in together in the larger markets. Um, still has to be done very quickly, no matter if you're in a larger or a smaller market.

Robert: And I'm sure a lot of our listeners can understand the position you're in, in that smaller, uh, jurisdiction wearing so many hats.  So if anything was going to be contentious, that was probably, it was there a disagreement between the journalists and PIOs with respect to issuing embargoes?

Olivia: Yes, there was a little bit of contention as far as it came with embargoes. Now, honestly, over the past 18 months during the pandemic, I haven't seen a lot of embargoed information just because the information is coming so quickly and it changes so quickly that kind of what we have, what we know right now.

We want to get out before it changes again. I think it was interesting that if we did have, if the public health communicators did have embargoed information that we wanted to get out to the media, the media was arguing that they didn't want to wait on the embargo. They wanted to release it to the public ASAP.

But I think that what they may not realize sometimes is that there's a reason for embargoes, you know, things. Um, even though they change quickly and they happen fast, things have to be set in place before you can, you know, tell the public to jump or do this. We want to make sure all our ducks [00:06:30] are in a row.

And while we're trying to be prepared as public health communicators and prepare some messaging with an embargo, um, I believe there needs to be mutual respect on capturing that embargo and arguing that it needs to be released before it should be.  

Robert: now I'm sure they didn't say, oh yeah, we understand Olivia. So we won't worry about embargoes in the future, but did they seem to get a sense of your challenges and with information. And when. 

Olivia: Yeah, absolutely. I think that, uh, it definitely shined some light on why embargoes are important and, you know, honestly, we're trying to help the media out by giving them information ahead of time so that they can start writing and start figuring out the angle for their stories.

But also there needs to be some mutual respect on why that embargo is important in public. 

Robert: So in that vein, you got into the discussion a little bit about, the pitching of non-COVID stories. And what were some of the high points of that discussion, especially around how journalists and PIOs has worked together to pitch maybe non COVID stories?

Olivia: Well, within the past 18 months, almost everything is COVID related and if it's not. COVID related. It is indirectly COVID related. Right. So it's just kind of figuring out that angle and public health is a very broad and wide, um, subject, uh, I think it's important that we continue messaging that relate to public [00:08:30] health, even though it may not be directly related with COVID.

So I think it was a great idea that journalists and the media were trying to, uh, continue some other important aspects aspects of public health, but while relating it to COVID. Some of these examples that I was thinking of is, um, stories related to a reduction in preventative screenings, right? So people may not have went and get got mammograms or went for their annual physical because well, they didn't want to be out and about, or they were worried about going to the  hospital o their, their physician office because of, you know, catching the virus.

So there was a reduction in that. So we wanted to make sure people knew that no, you know, prevention is still very important, even though there is a pandemic going on. Um, another angle to this would be mental health, you know, making sure that, uh, people were still keeping up with being healthy as far as mental health issues go, especially during the pandemic and then even some other broad public health programs like distributing  Narcan, because we did see a rise in.

And drug use because people were isolated and sad and it does tie back into mental health. So making sure that we were, you know, continuing to communicate that Narcan is important to have to reverse an opioid overdose. 

Robert: And I don't think we can say it enough that none of the other health conditions stop just because of a COVID they continued on and it's sometimes good to remind ourselves of that. 

Can you give us an example of what kind of working partnerships you have established with your local media, whether it was COVID or non COVID? 

Olivia: I've been in health communication for 10 years here in licking county. So I'm very thankful that I've built up these relationships with my local media so that when a crisis like this or any other crisis happens, they know exactly how to get ahold of me and vice versa.

And we have a very great mutual respect for each other here in licking county. Like I said, I'm very thankful for that. So what I would do is I would often give them a heads [00:11:00] up so that they could start writing a story or I'd even start preparing some quotes that I could provide to them so they could pop them into their stories.

Because really the end goal of this is being transparent and communicating with my community. You know, this is where I live. This is where I raised my kids. I want people to know that the public health department is working hard and we're going to let them know what's happening. I don't want any confusion.

And that really comes down to, um, partnering with my local media. 

Another aspect of this being in a smaller local jurisdiction is I'm actually good friends with the editor of our local newspaper. And while we work very well together, we've had many conversations, especially during COVID. Said to me, I'm, I'm publishing something and you're not going to like it, but it's my job.

And this is your job. And at the end of the day, we're still going to be friends and we're still gonna work together, but it is how it is. 

Robert: I love the way you talked about, especially the ending there about the relationship that you had built, because I think that was one of the takeaways from the session is that relationships are so important in trying to establish a relationship in the middle of a crisis is much more difficult than establishing that relationship ahead of time.

Robert:  During this crisis as a PIO, what surprised you about what journalists are faced with in their day to day efforts of reporting on the  pandemic?

Olivia: I think in a way, journalists are very similar to PIOs in that we are both messengers of the information, right. And what have we been saying? You know, don't shoot the messenger. But unfortunately in public health, that happens when you're a PIO or a spokesperson like I am, but also when you're a reporter, a journalist, right.

Because they're the messenger of the information. So I think something that surprised me about that piece of the panel is that journalists often face a backlash from the public  as well after they release or published their stories. And I think something else that was really interesting about that, Robert.

Journalists are not public health experts. Um, they're not public information officers. Some of them even had special beats before coming into this crisis. Right? So maybe one reporter focused on education or one wasn't even a sports writer, but now everybody is pushed into. Writing. And I [00:15:30] think it was important to know that they had a learning curve, some of them, uh, in order to report on a pandemic, they really had to learn some health aspects of it.

So I think that surprised me a little bit about that piece.

Robert: That is great insight, Olivia. And so I'm wanting one final takeaway. Do you think this panel reveals something specific that all PIOs and journalists need to consider when working together in a crisis? 

Olivia: Yes, absolutely. My answer to this would be that both journalists and reporters and public information officers or health communicators, we are working together to fight misinformation and disinformation and keep the public informed of what is happening right now with this crisis, with the pandemic and.

I think that that's important for us to know as working together, even though we may get frustrated with each other, either one of us isn't giving the information fast enough or the other one is not working hard enough to [00:16:30] understand why it is a specific wording as needed. But at the end of the day, I think that this panel revealed that at the end, we're all fighting together to, to fight this misinformation and disinformation and keep the public.

Robert: Well, thank you, Olivia. We will let that be the last word and thank you again for joining me today. 

Olivia: Thank you, Robert.