Communicating on the Front Lines of a Pandemic

Public Relations Alumni Share Experience as Health Care Communicators During a Crisis
Zach Zdanowicz, '22

Public relations professionals are time and time again the backbone of communications and community building within their industries. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Kent State alumni in healthcare fields have been put to the test to deliver important and timely responses to their network through both internal and external communications.

Deborah (Pritchard) Less, ‘09, Communications Manager for the Cleveland Clinic, finds her role as an internal communications professional is to keep all caregivers (the term used to identify all employees) “informed, motivated, and inspired.”

“With so much change, fatigue and uncertainty — we did, and continue to do, anything possible to help caregivers care for our patients, one another and themselves. We’re here for each other like family,” said Less, who majored in public relations. “While the pandemic has been exhausting, it’s also part of our role to provide some relief and inspiration — whether by sharing well-being resources or recognizing a team who provided exceptional patient care through storytelling.”

While public relations professionals in healthcare have been faced with the challenge of conveying urgent information and answering hard questions, Less notes that “transparency and trust is critical” in this work.

Part of this transparency lies within keeping communities informed. 

For public relations alumna Rebecca (Odell) Oleksa, ‘10, Digital Content Account Manager for Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, keeping the website up to date with the most current COVID-19 information is an essential part of her work.

While working in a children's hospital, a part of Oleksa’s communication challenges deals with informing and educating parents about vaccines — and finding a balance between informing and respecting families’ decisions.

“Parents know their children best. They need information to make these decisions, and while there is a wealth of information at our fingertips all the time, sometimes the information can be confusing or conflicting,” Oleksa said. “We’ve been committed to ensuring families have reliable, accurate information from medical experts so they can make informed decisions for their families.”

Working in the healthcare industry during the pandemic has opened new challenges for these professionals, challenging their communication and crisis management skills.

“The pandemic has honed crisis and changed communication skills — to listen, to ask the right questions, to work efficiently, to think strategically but not overthink, to go with your gut, and then assess and discuss what worked, and what didn’t, so you continue to improve,” Less said. “It’s also improved my ability to pivot priorities at a moment’s notice.”

Abby Winternitz, ‘19, was only a few months into her professional career at Bon Secours Mercy Health in Cincinnati when the pandemic hit.

“I like to think it’s made me a more empathetic communicator — it’s not every day that the thing you’re communicating is also something you’re experiencing on a personal level,” said Winternitz, who majored in public relations. “Even though it was a scary and terrible period for all of us, that shared experience of community we felt at the beginning of the pandemic was arguably more impactful than any other campaign I had worked on to that point.”

Though the pandemic has opened a world of new challenges for these healthcare professionals, there is a sense of what could have been if the pandemic had not arisen. 

“That early part of my professional career seems unfinished,” Winternitz said. “I’ll go back every now and then to my old desk to pick things up (even though I’ve been fully remote since March of 2020), and it feels like a completely different job.” 

Less also recalls the uncertainty of the pandemic’s early days.

“I remember sitting in our conference room back in March 2020 when my manager told us our team would be working remote for a while. It feels surreal now,” Less said. “... In the beginning, all resources were focused on COVID-19. Non-pandemic related business halted; this was everything from events and conferences to non-essential procedures. Our team was able to focus on COVID-19 support. We covered all shifts seven days a week as needed.”

Months in, Less and her team took a deep breath, uncertain how long this pandemic would continue.

“We reassessed and discussed how we could make our work sustainable,” she said. “At one point, the organization (and the world) started to phase in other priorities and initiatives while all being prepared to continue to overcome COVID-19. Today we continue to manage a mix of both.”

Through it all, Less says her team has never worked together stronger. All three alumnae credit the Kent State public relations sequence for preparing them for the challenges they’ve faced the past two years.

Winternitz attributes her knowledge of the industry to the hands-on public relations experiences and classes she took advantage of, particularly the PRSSA National Bateman Case Study Competition, where her client was With Purpose, a non-profit that advocates for childhood cancer research. 

“Kent State professors emphasized that as communicators, we’re not just writers but strategic communications advisors helping our colleagues achieve their desired business outcome,” Less said. “We have a significant seat at the table. Our questions and advice can guide strategy and operations. 

At the end of the day, these public relations healthcare professionals find a purpose for the work they do. 

“The experience of communicating throughout the pandemic has been highly stressful and emotional – but also, strangely reaffirming of why I got into this line of work in the first place,” Winternitz said. “I am reminded daily of my purpose in helping to keep our associates, patients and their families safe.”

POSTED: Monday, February 28, 2022 12:56 PM