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Former newspaper reporter talks about improving PIO and media connection Date: 11/11/19


Doug Levy

By Bara Vaida

After more than decade of writing about health and science issues for USA Today, journalist Doug Levy left journalism to become chief communications officer at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and then moved to the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine as director of communications. In 2018, he self-published a book called “The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts” which became, to his surprise, the number one bestselling book on Amazon in the public relations and public administration category when it was released in April 2018. Levy continues to write as a freelancer and speak to public emergency officials about how to communicate with the media and the public. He is working on a second edition of his book that focuses on how public health officials can improve their communication strategies.

Q: Why and how did you write “The Communications Golden Hour?”

A: This book is self-published. Originally, it was intended as a way [for me] to tell people about what I teach and [to] hire me to do workshops. To my surprise, people are buying the book, which is a happy problem. That is why I am doing this second edition.

Q: I thought your book was a great behind-the-scenes look at how a public information officer can develop a strategy for working with the media and responding to a public health crisis. How can this be helpful to journalists?

A: The people who are responsible for getting information out, public information officers, have to be really aware of who they are dealing with as intermediaries … you have some reporters that know what they are writing, health journalists who have had some experience either covering the specific type of disease or incident … but if it is a really big situation [or outbreak] …you’re going to have some reporters who are just thrown into [the situation] and don’t necessarily know the minefields.. So a good PIO has to spend the time to pick up the phone and call reporters separately and just say look, here are some places you can turn to get some background on how this is done [because this outbreak] is going to be going on for awhile. … A good PIO is ready with reference material [for this situation]. Journalists can benefit by learning what public safety professionals must do when there is a crisis. Understanding priorities makes it easier to figure out where to turn for essential information when situations are developing or other news is breaking.

Q: In your book you talk about the need for PIOs to establish trust with the media and the public. How do you do that in today’s era of social media and false health information circulating on the Internet?

A: We've certainly learned that the rules that we used to count on don't apply anymore. My colleagues and I really felt this during 2014 [Ebola outbreak] when we thought that scientists with a lot of firsthand experience [in infectious disease would be] able to speak with authority. … It turned out that's not necessarily true anymore. The reality is … it’s who's louder and says something more quotable. … It's who made the most noise. That's not a good way to convey public health. It's a real problem. That's why those of us who are communicating about public health have to work harder than ever to make our stories clear. … It means that we have to not only figure out which scientists or physicians or nurses or other clinical people are the credible spokespeople, but [also] how do we get authoritative information to influencers like politicians in ways that they will not only accept but also help get out to the public. And that requires relationship building that doesn't happen quickly.

Q: What are the lessons learned in your mind about the recent measles outbreak?

A: The measles outbreak is really a sad example of what happens when you have misinformation that [went] unchecked for … a long time. This is where those of us in the media, in particular, underestimated the appeal of the messages of people like Andrew Wakefield (the British physician who was found to have falsified his research data to prove a link between vaccines and autism). When Wakefield's fraud was exposed …we didn't see a whole lot of coverage … outside of the medical literature and science publications…It’s now how many years later? ... And there are quite a few people in the United States who believe that his research was true and correct, which is really scary. I don't think the media has ever covered that part properly.

Q: How could we have done it better?

A: We need some good explanatory journalism. It can't be coming from the government. In the current environment, if you work for the government, what you say is automatically discounted by many people – no matter what qualifications you have. We should be educating our readers about how to evaluate somebody’s credibility. Then put out as much information as we can in ways that help the public evaluate it and come to their own reasonable conclusions based on facts. We are much too frequently just doing, ‘he said, she said’ stories without really digging into who's got authoritative information or not.

Q: You are talking about the bias that a story must have an inherent conflict for it to be newsworthy?

A: Exactly. That's what the media loves covering. You know there is plenty of conflict [in public health] but it's not necessarily the … right conflict that is being covered. For example, there is a robust debate going on in public health circles on what are the right policy responses to measles. That is a legitimate debate. It’s not whether vaccines are generally safe.

Q: Can you elaborate? Do you mean forcing parents to vaccinate their children if they want to attend school?

A: That's a piece of it. Another part … is the legitimate question about the extent of a city's authority to quarantine people. There is a science to that story and analysis. I haven't seen anybody really tackle that. I think health reporters are missing a great opportunity to inform readers, viewers and listeners on how important science … is … [in regards to]… significant policy decisions that have … life and death and certainly economic impact.

Q: What else can a PIO do given lack of trust in science and the government?

A: Public health people have to be very connected to the community groups based on the population. … You have to be connected to ... an influencer in the community important to you … preachers, community leaders, sports figures … those that have credibility among the people [you want to reach].

Q: If there were another case of Ebola to reach the U.S. again, like 2014, do you think the way the media covers it would be any different than before?

A: I don't think there is much hope for politicians to do the right thing. … If we're sending physicians or other clinical personnel to other countries to take care of patients with Ebola or any [other dangerous infectious disease], we might actually need to keep them away from the United States for awhile. Not as an official quarantine, but just so that crazy things don't happen because of that fear.

Q: So what can journalists do to prepare for a public health emergency?

A: The number one is push back against the editors who want the ‘he said, she said.’ The ‘it's gotta be a fight between two people on polar opposite sides.’

Q: What else?

A: If thrown into the middle of the story, then you probably [will] need to rely on the PIO more than you ideally want to. It shouldn't be that hard to figure out whether you're dealing with a PIO who's got credibility or not. Most PIOs in government [health] agencies … and academia … see themselves as almost journalists. They want accurate stories, and most good PIOs are not going to be hiding the truth … or spinning. I’m not saying don’t be skeptical, but … you should take advantage of PIOs who know their stuff. … In many instances, you have PIOs with journalism backgrounds or scientific experience – or both. That kind of PIO can be a great resource, and it’s worth knowing whether you are speaking with one of those or someone who is merely a political appointee or public relations person.

Q: Any other advice?

A: Learn how your local or regional public health system works … [in an emergency situation] because … the pecking order may change. For example, in California, if there's a public health emergency, the decision-making framework changes. Local hospital clinicians may … get an order from the county or the state to do something different. … And can’t tell you what's going on … it’s something you can learn in your down time. Take your PIO out to coffee to get a sense of that ... and also try to find out how the politics of your community might come into play if there is an emergency. Ideally, emergency responses avoid politics, but we rarely see the ideal.