In the halcyon days of early 2020 – before the novel coronavirus earned pandemic status, before hand sanitizer, cleaning products and toilet paper became scarce, before social distancing became rooted in our daily vocabulary, and before grandmas everywhere started sewing face masks – a group of City of Houston communicators were laying the framework to inform and prepare Houstonians for the unknown.
The Houston Health Department and the Office of Emergency Management collaborated on a crisis communications plan that has evolved as the pandemic continues to grip our daily lives. They worked in tandem with the Mayor’s Office of Communications to provide timely updates , handle media requests, and assist Mayor Sylvester Turner’s daily press conferences.
Houston Health Department Chief Communications Officer Scott Packard and OEM Public Information Officer Cory Stottlemyer answered a few questions about what it takes to keep the public information machine running.
Q: You enacted a crisis communications plan early in the year, before the first official coronavirus cases were reported in the Houston area. Tell us a little about your process and timeline.
Packard: COVID-19 is the public health crisis of our lifetimes and the information continues to rapidly evolve. In mid- to late January, it started becoming apparent it was likely only a matter of time before the new coronavirus affected the United States. At that time, no one could definitively say what impact the coronavirus would have in the U.S., but we thought it best to lean forward with a communications plan. We started by working with the Houston Office of Emergency Management to stand up a page on the Houston Emergency site to host all Houston-specific information about coronavirus. This gave Houstonians one consistent place to go for official trusted information. From there we developed flyers and factsheets in various languages, and health department Public Information Officer Porfirio Villarreal pre-wrote templated news releases and talking points for a variety of scenarios. Ironically, there was a pre-scheduled citywide communications staff meeting where we were able to brief all departments about the basic plan and resources.
HHD Chief Communications Officer
When cases arrived in the United States, specifically in Texas, we found ourselves somewhat ahead of the curve on communication preparation. In fact, other health departments in Texas used our flyers for a period of time because they did not yet have their own. Planning only goes so far when you’re dealing with the uncertainty of a new virus, and messaging has evolved throughout the response.
Cory Stottlemyer coordinated communications assistance from various city departments, which was a tremendous help. As you can imagine, the volume of media inquires during this event is astronomical. We coordinated with Mary Benton in the Mayor’s Office of Communication for regular media briefings, which was a tremendous help. Once we started getting cases in Houston, everything becomes a bit of a blur. There was at least a month straight of 70-plus-hour weeks on the communications side of things. Everyone really came together to help, and there is still a long road ahead.
Q: What previous events or experiences prepared you for this level of crisis of communications?
Packard: This will be the crisis communications event of my lifetime, I hope. When I was at the Galveston County Health District, we had a massive crisis communications event surrounding beach water bacteria. The issue there was simple: Some media outlets were literally hyping the situation to the degree of unethical and inaccurate reporting. Managing that crisis as a one-person department was a tremendous challenge. But, in the end, the hype did not win because Galveston had another record-breaking tourism year. With the lessons learned, I was able to collaborate with the visitor’s center on a campaign the following summer that helped greatly reduce the hysteria.
OEM Public Information Officer
Stottlemyer: Prior to working for the City of Houston, I worked for a smaller municipality in our region and was lead PIO during Hurricane Harvey. My then-director had traveled out of the region ahead of the storm and was unable to return, so the plans and roles our communications team had previously established were put to the ultimate test. If we hadn’t had our system already in place, we would have failed, and that was in the end one of my biggest takeaways.
Q: How are you staying on the same page with each other and coordinating logistics with all the various entities when the situation is developing so rapidly?
Packard: We have a lot of calls and emails. I can’t thank OEM enough for coordinating regular public affairs task force calls and many other calls that really help make sure our messaging is consistent and accurate. We also participate on the Harris County joint information center call with regional stakeholders, which is very important. We also send regular emails to City of Houston communications staff to make sure they have the latest information and resources.
Q: Despite your efforts to inform the public, what is one thing that people are consistently getting wrong/misunderstanding or spreading misinformation?
Packard: Given the rapidly evolving nature of this new virus, guidance changes. It’s been a challenge to explain new guidance and why it changed. Examples include originally telling the public that masks are only needed by sick people, then changing to everyone should wear a face covering. Another example is how it was originally thought only symptomatic people spread virus. When information changes, we use all our tools to push the updated message: website, social media, newsletters, flyers, signage, graphics and news conferences.
Stottlemyer: I’m proud of how accessible our information has been. From the wide variety of communications tools, to the multiple translations, and hard work of our American Sign Language interpreters and translators, we’ve had information shared from the start in a variety of accessible formats.
Q: What is one constant message or fact that hasn't changed throughout the developing situation?
Packard and Stottlemyer: Luckily the primary message has remained the same: Proper healthy hygiene habits help reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19.
Q: COVID-19 is certainly weighing heavily and dominating our thoughts and media consumption worldwide, but you are living it 24 hours a day. Are you able to switch your brain off this crisis?
Packard: There was about a month that averaged about 70-hour weeks. We’ve been able to reduce that a bit, but Porfirio Villarreal, the Health Department PIO, and I continue to work a lot of hours. My mind is almost always completely occupied by this response. I’m always reflecting on the day’s priorities and thinking of those for the next. I look forward to the point when COVID-19 is not the last thing I think about before going to sleep and the first thing I think about when I wake up.
Stottlemyer: The COVID-19 response is sun-up to sun-down, seven days a week. Each day brings new tasks, and new messaging needs, but thankfully the city has a great team of PIOs and communicators who have shared the work load and streamlined a lot of this process.
Q: Experts are predicting this pandemic to last for several more months. Going forward, how do you plan to sustain or change your communications approach?
Stottlemyer: One thing OEM has been preparing for is all-hazards preparation messaging. Hurricane season is coming up, and we’ve been adjusting our already planned preparedness messaging to remind the public that emergencies come in all forms.
Q: If you could give a shout-out to anyone else involved in the city's efforts, who, in your opinion, is an unsung hero and deserves recognition?
Packard: Much of the work of public health goes on behind these scenes. Our Houston Health Department staff is on the front lines of our COVID-19 response: from the disease investigators doing contact tracing, to the staff working our testing sites, to those keeping up with other day-to-day public health responsibilities. These people are putting in a lot of work in high-stress situations and deserve to be recognized. In addition, none of the communications efforts would be successful without the Health Department communications team of Porfirio Villareal, Webmaster David Opheim, Graphic Designer Robert Schell, Cory Stottlemyer and the other City of Houston communicators who helped in this response.
Stottlemyer: I will give a huge shout-out to our American Sign Language interpreting partners and the communications team members who have been attending every daily news conference to stream them live. We’ve had to be creative while practicing social distancing but still be able to broadcast the daily media availabilities, and there has been a lot of behind the scenes work go into this. Scott Packard, Porfirio Villarreal and David Opheim with HHD’s communications team have been doing an excellent, around-the-clock job of pushing consistent, timely, and actionable public information. Their tireless leadership throughout this response has been second-to-none, and they deserve all the accolades for their hard work.