What it’s like to work in communications for the CDC: HMJ alumnae share about fellowships

From helping to prepare messages during times of health crises to assisting in the development of strategy and implementation of public health campaigns, two alumnae of the Grady College Health and Medical Journalism graduate program recently opened up about their roles as Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellows at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Lacey Avery (MA’ 13) has been an ORISE fellow in the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion since September 2013, while Marcie McClellan (MA ’12) began her tenure as an ORISE fellow in the Division of Communication Services in June 2012.

What are your major responsibilities?

LA: I work within the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion's (DHQP) communications team. DHQP works to protect patients and healthcare workers by promoting safety and quality in both national and international healthcare delivery systems.

Main responsibilities include working in consultation with division leadership, subject experts, and graphics staff to manage communication projects. I produce content for blogs, websites, and social media, as well as create layouts for toolkits and infographics for both patients and healthcare workers. I mainly focus on healthcare-associated infections—infections patients can get while receiving medical treatment in a healthcare facility—but also contribute to materials on medication safety and antibiotic resistance.

MM: In my two and a half years at CDC, I’ve researched foodborne illnesses; advised CDC staff on developing PRs (scripts that contact center staff use to respond to public inquiries), provided technical assistance; and facilitated multiple trainings for CDC program staff and contact center staff, including “CDC-INFO’s Role in Emergency Response.” I also had the opportunity to lead the CDC-INFO Mobile App Initiative, in which I developed a proposal and successfully pitched (along with my team members) to DCS Senior Leadership. The proposal was positively received and the team has developed a wonderful prototype. As a member of the CDC-INFO Marketing Team, I’ve spent the past year developing and implementing the new CDC-INFO branding. The new CDC-INFO graphical elements appear on the CDC Intranet and on multiple documents designed for CDC program staff.

During my time with CDC-INFO, I’m most proud of developing and launching the CDC-INFO Program Access Portal (PAP), a self-service Web-portal that gives CDC staff 24 hours and 7 days a week access to real-time information such as prepared responses (PRs), A–Z List, usage data, publication standard operating procedures (SOPs), and training schedules. I worked closely with the developer to build, design, and beta test the portal. PAP launched in February 2014, and to date more than 20 CDC programs have access to the system. PAP has also proved an effective tool during the Ebola response, as staffs from multiple programs were able to see the entire set of content devoted to the response in one convenient place.

Another highlight of my CDC experience was executing the 2013−2014 seasonal flu communications plan for CDC-INFO, which included hosting multiple training sessions and leading the content update of more than 140 PRs. For this communications plan, I facilitated an agency-wide work group that brought all CDC divisions with flu-related content together to ensure that messages were accurate and consistent. I developed presentations and handouts to educate agents on the new quadrivalent flu vaccine and designed an interactive influenza information navigation tool for agents. The tool assists agents in understanding the differences between seasonal, avian, swine, and pandemic flu before choosing the appropriate content to respond to inquiries. The communication tools and trainings I implemented resulted in a 25 percent increase in the quality of flu-related responses.

Describe what it¹s like to work for the CDC communications during a health crisis, specifically the current Ebola outbreak.  How have you helped to craft responses?  Which platforms (e.g., print, web, social media) do you use to distribute information?

LA: I joined CDC’s Ebola Outbreak Response in August 2014 in CDC's Joint Information Center (JIC) within the Emergency Operations Center. The JIC coordinates risk communication strategy to guide the development of messages. For the last five months, I’ve acted as the Joint Information Center liaison officer and team content manager for the team focused on patient safety, healthcare worker safety, and healthcare training in U.S. and West African healthcare settings.

Alongside subject experts and communication team members, I’ve developed Ebola-related infection control and prevention materials for healthcare workers in both domestic and international healthcare settings. I also edit Ebola-related materials from across the agency for consistent messaging and to ensure the content is suitable for the target audience. Domestic communication platforms range from print and website to social media, including Twitter chats. I’ve also helped draft radio PSAs, training guidance, and infographic flyers for the public and healthcare settings in West Africa.

The outbreak response can be hectic and exhausting – information frequently and rapidly changes. Our team works closely together to stay informed, so I’ve had the opportunity to get to know some great communicators from across the agency. This includes two HMJ graduates I normally don't partner with on projects.

MM: I’ve supported the Emergency Operation Center’s (EOC) Joint Information Center (JIC) during three responses: 2012 Fungal Meningitis Outbreak, MERS CoV response, and most recently, with the Ebola response. I developed PRs, created resource tools and job aids for agents, and facilitated PAP trainings for CDC staff supporting the response.  I also initiated a mini Ebola stakeholders’ meeting that allowed members from core and matrix JIC teams to come together and discuss the unique challenges of the response. The meetings have proved to be effective in helping the teams work together and prevent duplicative efforts. Working in the JIC provided fundamental lessons on executing a crisis communication plan, and more importantly the importance of being proactive and flexible—especially in the 24-hour news cycle. Currently, the public can contact CDC-INFO via phone, e-mail, and postal mail. I work behind the scenes to make sure contact center staff have the content to respond to inquiries through these channels.

What are you enjoying about your role and what are some challenges that you¹ve had to overcome?

LA: I really enjoy the camaraderie within my division’s communications team. We work to help each other out and it’s great to be a part of such a knowledgeable and supportive network.

As a health communicator, it’s been challenging to fight the steep learning curve that comes with communicating unfamiliar subjects. I really do learn something new every day.

MM: Working at CDC, I’ve witnessed firsthand the challenges health communicators’ face, such as working with subject-matter experts who don’t speak plain language needed for the general public to make informed health decisions, or developing content during an emergency situation. I like for staff to be prepared and have content right away; however, it’s extremely important for everything to go through a formal clearance process before sharing with the public. So, balancing providing the public with solid information with making sure things have been vetted can be challenging at times. Yet, I have also seen the rewards of effective health communication, such as the successful results of CDC’s “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” and “Tips From Former Smokers” campaigns.

How did your HMJ coursework help prepare you for this position?

LA: HMJ courses focus on sharing information that is accurate, consistent, and written appropriately for the target audience, valuable skills needed for any health writing or communications position.

Talking with experts can be intimidating, but HMJ assignments pushed me to interview top experts across the country. This prepared me to work side-by-side with CDC experts to develop messages grounded in sound public health and science.

MM: On a daily basis, I use techniques that I learned from my HMJ coursework such as, applying plain language, using data to tell stories that matter, and using communication to reduce the health disparity gap. I also found the relationships I forged in graduate school to be very beneficial in my day-to-day work. Some of my main contacts during the Ebola response have been with my HMJ and Global Health colleagues. It’s great because we’ve worked together in the past and we have the same training background, so we’re able to leverage that experience in our various roles.

What advice do you have for aspiring health and science journalists/writers?

LA: It’s important to use your ideas, passion, and skills to help make information about science as accurate, understandable, reliable, and interesting as possible. And pick up new tools as they appear to share with colleagues. (Follow Lacey on Twitter at @lacey_avery.)

MM: I would say don’t limit yourself. I pursued a degree in health and medical journalism and it’s provided me with a plethora of opportunities at CDC. I was always interested in digital innovation and content strategy, and the multimedia training I received as an HMJ student as helped me tremendously with those efforts. Plus, understanding how communication affects one’s health is so crucial to implementing strategies that will improve the quality of life of others.

About HMJ

The Health and Medical Journalism (HMJ) graduate program at Grady College offers students hands-on experience in addition to access to an extensive network of professionals as they learn to cover health and medicine for any market or audience. Upon degree completion, HMJ alumni apply their skills and talents working as independent writers and/or for companies such as American Society for Clinical Pathology and WebMD, among others. To read about how other HMJ alumni are making waves covering health and medicine, visit http://grady.uga.edu/medicaljournalism/students/archive.php.

Date: January 14, 2015