Public relations professionals dream of working with executives that understand not only the importance of the function but that are also well prepared to work effectively with them and become exceptional communicators. Such executives are rare, that is if my 30-years experience has any commonality among my peers.
Now and then, however, unique, capable executives and managers, who also can communicate exceptionally well with the public, do come along. Two women come to mind. One is a medical doctor, Dr. Julie Gerberding, Director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in Atlanta, whom I don’t know personally, just by reputation. The other, Dr. Paola Macchiaroli, a hydrogeologist with TRC, an environmental cleanup company in Boston, I do know personally and have worked with on several projects.
Becoming the face and voice of public health in today’s crisis prone environment is at best a challenge and at worse, if you were a poor communicator, career ending. Yet, Gerberding seems to not only know what to say – even though some of it is so technical at times that she pauses to find the right words – she also knows how to say it with a reassuring voice and even humor when appropriate.
Gerberding has had a steady stream of bad and scary news since assuming the reigns of the nation’s center for disease research and control. Yet, as she did recently when asked during a SARS press briefing if the virus could have come from outer space, she knows the value of steadiness and humor.
Gerberding smiled and then said, “We have no scientific evidence that SARS or any other infectious diseases have dropped off a meteor at this point in time. But we have an open mind and should we discover any evidence supportive of that, we would let you know.”
She didn’t demean the question. She didn’t deride or ridicule the reporter. She didn’t flinch or blink or hesitate or cough or do any of those other obnoxious and inappropriate “things” that sometimes executives can do. Instead, she resolutely and with calmness and conviction gave her answer. She can no doubt reassure a jittery America whether its about anthrax, West Nile virus or SARS. She has handled the smallpox issue, the monkey pox scare, and the emergence of the acute respiratory infection SARS.
Frankly, in my years of observing the business world way too many Federal and State “directors” are long on technical knowledge and short on communications skills. Perhaps, it is the power of the ‘Peter Principle,” whatever it is, many technically competent people also think they have the persuasive powers of communications. It has been my observation over the years that such technically competent people have a difficult time communicating outside their sphere of influence, which is normally other technicians who are equally analytical and sometimes overly amiable in their skills.
Such is not the case with Gerberding, a South Dakota native, who grew up as the daughter of a police chief and a teacher. A striking and easily identifiable woman, she has a long flowing streak of striking gray hair that frames her face and gives her an air of authority. She has a no nonsense “I give it to you straight” communications style, while still understanding the importance of being human and injecting some humor when appropriate in her delivery and her messages. She “connects” with her audience and uses as much technical language as the audience can most likely handle, while not talking down to her listeners.
She talks about viruses, germs and bad stuff as easily as a public relations consultant discusses focus groups and key messages.
She gleans attention from the fact the she is the first female director of the CDC, that she is obviously intelligent, personable, and striking in her appearance.
Yet, sources say that behind all the style (she was recently featured in Vogue magazine) there is substance. People close to her that work in ancillary organizations that support the CDC were quoted by USA Today in an article by Anita Manning (June 12, 2003) that she had as “much substance” behind the impression as there is seeable style.
Charles Stokes, Director of the CDC Foundation, one of those many government nonprofit organizations that seek additional monies to support government work, told Manning that “The reassuring part of Julie is that it’s more than just an impression. She knows the science, and she nails the science before she speaks with the public.”
Improving the flow and quality of communications in any Federal agency is a daunting task at best. Frankly, too many Federal agencies I have dealt with in the past saw communications as the last priority on the list of things to do. Apparently, Gerberding sees it as job one!
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, a former governor from Wisconsin, can take the credit for finding and promoting Gerberding to the CDC position. In 2001, at the height of the anthrax scare, the CDC in usual government bureaucratic fashion was “hunkered down” and trying to avoid media interactions. They were inaccessible, as most agencies are, at least early on in the media onslaught. Thompson said after meeting with several people at CDC that he found Gerberding to be accessible, knowledgeable, and a “go-to type” of person. He became impressed with her abilities and her communications style and appointed her after the previous director resigned. Thompson said in the USA Today article that he saw an “intelligent, politically astute woman who knew the issues” in Gerberding.
Obviously, Thompson was right. Throughout 2003, Gerberding spent her time talking to her people and learning the system, the issues, the pros and the cons of the CDC styles. She made television appearances explaining what the CDC was and wasn’t.
She held numerous media briefings, spoke at medical conferences, conducted regular conference calls and web casts with various stakeholder groups that were important to the success of CDC. She did the “PR thing.” Seemingly, she is doing it well.
Gerberding readily admits that she quickly realized that public health needed communications leadership and that the nation’s watchdog needed more visibility.
Gerberding did the right thing at the right time. She has recognized the importance of putting a face – a human touch – to some very technical and scary issues that routinely come from the CDC. She has obviously been driven over the years to improve and hone what may already be innate communications skills. She has emerged as the “calming voice” for the CDC.
I can only trust she is doing that in collaboration with and receiving good public relations guidance from her internal public affairs consultants, who hopefully also have a seat at her table.
Now and then, if we are lucky in our careers we will get the opportunity to do a project the right way from day one. In other words, as public relations practitioners we won’t be called in to “put out the fire” rather we will “get to manage the forest starting with ground preparation.”
Such was the case for a project in Wells, Maine – the Portland Bangor Waste Oil (PBWO) Project www.pbwo.homestead.com headed up by the talented and versatile hydrogeologist and communicator Dr. Paola Macchiaroli, a project manager with TRC.
Macchiaroli, a native of Springfield, Mass., holds a graduate degree from Dartmouth and received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Italian ancestry is evident in the 40-year old, and a hard hat often frames her dark hair and eyes. She is a frequent visitor to her cleanup sites where she takes an active role in the oversight of the operations ensuring that what she has told the community will be done gets done in a timely manner.
She is no stranger to working with the rough and tumble employees of the construction and engineering world. Although smaller in stature than most of the employees when she walks her sites, it is evident she is in command of most any situation, as was the case at the PBWO site.
The PBWO site was formerly a waste oil recycling business where more than 2900 parties sent their waste oil products. The state of Maine was not able to track down all these responsible parties to affect a timely cleanup. In fact, this problem had existed for years with false starts and quick stops. The neighbors to the site had heard time and again how one day the site would be restored, yet progress was at a stand still; public skepticism was high, and public dissatisfaction with bureaucracy even higher.
That’s when TRC stepped in and negotiated a contract with the state to help them track down the responsible parties, take the money collected and restore the site with state oversight, and then work towards returning the site to a useful piece of community property.
Kay Armstrong, a principal with Armstrong and Associates, a behavioral public relations consulting and counseling firm in Eddyville, Kentucky was selected to team up with Dr. Macchiaroli to design and implement a comprehensive stakeholder involvement plan for the project that had high levels of stakeholder communications required to be effective.
“We told the public at our meeting in April (2001) that we wanted them to be involved and well-informed throughout this process,” Macchiaroli said. “We believe that next to the right engineering solution to this problem, that an equally important part of our work was building relationships and communications within the community.”
Armstrong admits that often her work with engineering companies can be challenging, especially when they bring you in after the problem has developed or they are not open to hearing anything other than their own answer.
“Sometimes the companies have no concept of what it means to actually involve the community on the front end. I was pleased to see that Dr. Macchiaroli not only understood the importance of developing a front-end set of strategies and an action plan to communicate, yet that she also had the skills to effectively communicate with the local people,” Armstrong said.
Macchiaroli not only understood, she sought out new, different yet non-threatening ways to engage the citizens of Wells, Maine.
‘We took the time to listen to the community about their concerns and their issues as it related to this site. Then we simply and methodically addressed each of them and told the community what we were doing as we addressed them,” Macchiaroli said in an interview with the York County Extra, a special supplement of the York County News.
Unlike many technical approaches, TRC’s communications efforts headed up by Macchiaroli took the bigger picture look at what the community needs might be (forecasting), asked the community through a public meeting what those needs were (discovery and validation), and then worked with Armstrong and Associates to develop a workable and doable plan of action to address them (planning, design and implementation), and adjusted scope as needed based on soliciting on-going feedback (evaluation phase).
“The most impressive trait I believe of Macchiaroli is she can see the highly technical issues that the public will most likely have a concern about and then break those issues down into understandable laymen’s language and concepts,” Armstrong said. “And she is very approachable by any segment of the public and seems at ease dealing as much with the senior neighbors as she does the baby boomers.”
The communications effort fostered and ultimately implemented by Macchiaroli began with the facilitated public meeting in April 2001. Macchiaroli and state officials explained the project and in a free flowing discussion directed by the facilitator Macchiaroli solicited how much information the community wanted, how frequently they wanted it, and how best to deliver it. She did all this in an engaging, yet serious and professional manner. Later, she would learn from the interactions in the community that the “face” of the project had become hers. She became a “local” celebrity because she was accessible, easy to talk with, and readily available to deal with the media’s interest – something that too often federal and state officials shy from.
From that April meeting, Macchiaroli directed a program that included development of regularly issued, concise non-technical newsletters with lots of photographs explaining the operations; a series of informal community coffees that allowed for face-to-face interactions with the fence line stakeholders and other concerned citizens so they could see and hear first hand the progress at the site as cleanup progressed; and a series of video updates broadcast over the local cable channel that became a source of frequent and regular stakeholder attention.
A Web site was established. Here all the information above plus a glossary and media clips were loaded. Dr. Macchiaroli’s presence on the site once again reassured the public that the activities at the site were on track and schedule and she used easy to understand language to explain what was happening. She used news releases and press briefings to regularly update the media on the project.
“We felt then as we do now that the important thing was to ensure transparency of the operations at this site,” Macchiaroli said.
She supplemented these efforts with photo poster boards at the local library, frequent trips to the community to talk with the local officials and the residents, and tours for the interested members of the public and the media.
When the work was completed TRC held a Fall Fun Festival Day at the site that was attended by several hundred people, many of whom acknowledged they never expected the site to be cleaned up.
Negotiations continue over how the site will be used in the future. For now, as part of the agreement, TRC owns the property and has an insurance policy on the site to protect the community from any future environmental issues. The site has been considered for use as a local park, an animal shelter, and as green space.
“What makes Paola unique is the depth and variety of people that as a technical person Macchiaroli can develop quick rapport with and talk with on the subjects they are interested in,” Armstrong said. “It made no difference in this project what she was asked to do from the communications stand point, she was able to adapt herself and her language and speaking abilities to meet the need.”
Perhaps, some people are born communicators. Yet, I think not. The ability of one person over another I believe comes from sustained and deliberate practice. Good communicators intrinsically understand that communications is the critical component in the process of business and of life.
A commonality that Gerberding and Macchiaroli share is that they are both teachers at heart. Gerberding is still an associate professor of medicine at Emory University. Macchiaroli excelled in teaching during her graduate studies.
Both women have worked diligently to develop their communications skills and understand that working in a profession dominated by men, they have to be better communicators than most. Both women are personable and focused. Both women work hard to take the complex and make it understandable. Both women are well organized and understand that without the ability and power to persuade, that little gets done to solve problems. Both can see the bigger picture when at times others can’t. Although I don’t know Gerberding personally, I suspect much like Macchiaroli they both understand the importance of asking for advice and listening to their public relations advisors and consultants. Yet, I also suspect that they both are quite capable of making up their own minds about any issue they may confront.
Indeed, a great dream of all of us as public relations practitioners is to work with clients, managers and executives that share the bond of understanding around why public relations is as important to an organization as it is. In my career, I have been blessed to see that such exceptional communicators do indeed exist. - LDA