CDC says it wants better working relationships with reporters, provides contact information

Felice J. Freyer

About Felice J. Freyer

Felice J. Freyer is AHCJ's vice president and chair of the organization's Right to Know Committee. She is a health care reporter for The Boston Globe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided AHCJ with the email addresses and phone numbers of three key media officers, a move that a top official said she hoped would foster “a better working relationship”  with reporters.

Michelle E. Bonds, director of the Division of Public Affairs at the CDC, provided the contact information after AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee described members’ difficulties getting answers from the CDC.

Bonds said that she asked Kathy Harben, chief of media branch, “to remind all press officers to make every effort to respond to all media inquiries.”

The CDC website provides no names of press officers, only a generic mailbox and phone number for reporters. This new information may help reporters cut some steps out of the process of getting through.

Bonds also encourages reporters develop relationships with media officials. “It’s just like any relationship – things go faster when people know who you are,” she said. (She rejected my request that reporters be allowed to connect directly with expert sources within the CDC.) Each press officer has a beat, but CDC does not list them publicly because of high turnover, Bonds said.

Reporters are advised to direct their questions to the following people, starting with an email:

  • Bernadette Burden, team lead for noninfectious disease topics: btb8@cdc.gov; 404-639-7288
  • Bert Kelly, team lead for infectious disease topics: msy5@cdc.gov; 404-718-1053

If you have trouble getting a response, reach out to:

CDC provided this information as a result of a phone call I had with Bonds. She called me recently after I had exchanged several emails with the Health and Human Services media office in which I provided specific examples of responses that reporters found frustrating.

I told Bonds about the persistent difficulties AHCJ members have had in dealing with CDC: late or no responses to inquiries; difficulty getting interviews; and vague or boilerplate responses (often cut and pasted from the website) that don’t answer the reporter’s question.

Bonds said that press officers struggle to keep up with the demands, but are supposed to respond to everyone. “We need to encourage better response times. We have really tried,” she said.

Bonds mentioned that sometimes reporters’ inquiries are so brief or vague it’s hard to even tell which program can answer.

When a reporter requests an interview, Bonds explained, the staff will check to see if anyone with the needed expertise is available. Branch directors tend to have little time but can be reached with enough advance notice, she said. Sometimes a subject matter expert wants to know if the reporter has covered the topic in the past and will have well-informed questions. And sometimes the staff will ask if they can just answer the questions with email.

Bonds denied that freelancers or reporters from smaller outlets get less attention or are less likely to be granted interviews. She said the inquiries are handled as they come in, and even college newspapers get a response.

The only exception is when a large number of inquiries come in. Then, the office tries to allocate limited resources as best it can, Bonds said, by giving first responses to outlets with larger audiences or those located in the area when an event is happening.

“When things are really hot, I feel like our job is to make sure as many people get information as possible,” she said. “We may put people in order based on reach, or the location of the problem.”

Based on my conversation with Bonds, here are some tips for requesting information from the CDC:

  • Send your initial inquiry by email to Burden or Kelly, depending on the topic.
  • Be specific about what information you’re looking for and how quickly you need it.
  • Request in your initial email that the press officer let you know that the email has been received, even if they don’t have the answers yet.
  • Let the press officer know, and perhaps provide links, if you have previously covered the topic you’re inquiring about. Also mention if you have read the relevant CDC web pages but still have questions. If they know your level of expertise, it might hone the response or ease your access to an expert.
  • If you don’t hear any response within a reasonable amount of time (depending on your deadline), send another email and also call.
  • If the response you get is vague or unhelpful, don’t give up: Write back politely, explaining what’s missing. If it seems the press officer doesn’t understand what you’re looking for, reach out by phone so you can have a conversation.
  • If you still can’t get what you need or haven’t received any response, contact Harben and politely ask for her help.
  • If things don’t go well, save your emails and any notes about phone conversations, and send them to me. I can de-identify them if you prefer, but it’s essential to have documentation.
  • If things go well, save the contact information of the press officer you worked with, so you can reach the same person the next time you need help on that topic.

My conversation with Bonds was lengthy and cordial. I felt she was sincere in looking for ways to better serve our members within the system that exists.

Harben also followed up with an email to me saying that her office is “eager to provide your AHCJ members with timely, accurate responses … Please do let us know what we can do to improve.”

I suggest we take them at their word and keep in touch. It’s critical that AHCJ members inform me (felice.freyer@globe.com) or Right to Know vice chair Sabriya Rice (sabriya.rice@uga.edu) about any difficulties you encounter. Drop us a note about positive experiences as well, to make sure we have a balanced perspective.

10 thoughts on “CDC says it wants better working relationships with reporters, provides contact information

  1. Liz SeegertLiz Seegert

    Thank you for pushing this. It seems like it’s a hit or miss with the CDC, depending on…who know what. Having direct contact information for real people is an immense help.

  2. Felice J. FreyerFelice J. Freyer Post author

    Thanks, Liz. Please let us know if it actually makes a difference. I’ve always felt that writing to any “media@” or “info@” mailbox is like dropping a stone into an abyss so deep you never hear it land. At the very least, having names may remove one step from the process.

  3. Roxanne Nelson

    I have always had very good responses from the CDC and can’t recall a time they didn’t answer me. The last time I contacted them was in May, while they still had the generic box, and someone got back to me within 24 hours. And I got two people to comment from there. So I don’t know if my experience is unusual, or if it depends on who you are writing for, or whatever. I even got the the EPA and FDA to answer me for this story! Three in a row!

  4. Michele Cohen Marill

    Thanks so much for this! I have stopped reaching out to CDC if I have an alternative work-around because they just want to send emailed responses that have been reviewed by countless people and don’t provide much fresh or usable information.

  5. Felice J. FreyerFelice J. Freyer Post author

    That’s what I tried to explain to them. I wonder if they genuinely think their empty scripts offer something of value to reporters. That’s why I’m encouraging reporters to push back and explain what is lacking from the responses. Reporters get frustrated and hit delete. But that means the media officer never knows that she’s wasted her time and she’ll keep doing the same useless thing.

  6. Felice J. FreyerFelice J. Freyer Post author

    We can approach the FDA if members provide details about the difficulties they encounter, including both overarching complaints and specific examples. We were able to get CDC’s ear because we described the obstacles in some detail (and persistently) and because we’d heard from a fair number of people that there were problems. So please email me with your experiences and encourage others to do the same. If we get a critical mass of complaints, we can certainly try them next.

  7. Felice J. FreyerFelice J. Freyer Post author

    You’re very welcome! If you could keep us posted on any future interactions with CDC, it would really be helpful. We’d like to know whether anything has changed and whether having these names makes a difference.

  8. Roxanne Nelson

    Am I really that unique that I have never had any problems with the CDC or FDA? I have always spoken on the phone with CDC experts, and never given a “script.” One time I asked for email because I was at deadline and couldn’t wait for our scheduled interview, but the person answered all of my questions. I am surprised at the comments here-. I deal less with the FDA but they have always responded quickly–they often had nothing to say but I have never been ignored. I don’t think I have any magic formula for dealing with them, and I’m not world famous! And in fact, I have contacted CDC researchers who are authors on a specific study and they have responded without going through the media center.

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