14 Months on the Covid Communications Front Lines
Story and photos by Dan Dennison, Hawai‘i Dept. of Land and Natural Resources
On the last day of April 2021, my “official duty” as the Lead Public Information Officer in the Hawai‘i COVID-19 Joint Information Center came to an end. It was 14 months of long hours, trying circumstances and double duty. I continued to perform all the functions of my “day” job at DLNR.
This all began about two weeks after the first detection of a COVID-19 case in Hawai‘i. The communications director at the state Dept. of Health needed a few days of R&R, so I was asked to fill in for her.
Initially, this meant facilitating daily news briefings with the health director and state epidemiologist, developing talking points for them, briefing them, and then standing in front of TV and newspaper cameras to introduce the speakers and call on reporters calling in remotely with their questions. During this 2-week-long stint it became increasingly apparent that we were going to be in this for the long haul.
The state then established an Incident Command Structure to manage the myriad functions and responsibilities associated with a pandemic crisis. In emergency response situations, Hawai‘i, like most states, uses the Federal Emergency Management Agency, emergency support functions (EFS) structure.
ESF-15 broadly covers all communications, media and outreach functions. This also prompted the stand-up of a joint information center (JIC). The governor’s Communications Director and I were asked to take on the lead PIO roles. Due to her other responsibilities, I became responsible for operations and daily management of the JIC.
The DLNR Chairperson, my boss, was and is totally supportive of cross-cutting support for all Executive Branch departments. Initially, the JIC also had a manager. This was a person who was responsible for helping establish organizational structure, assign responsibilities and duties and map out plans for the center’s operation. While this was helpful on paper, it became clear early on that we could not fully achieve all the desired outcomes.
For example, many leaders in state government believed the JIC should be doing marketing, public relations and community outreach – in addition to media relations responsibilities. I argued, in the end successfully, that the JIC, due to its limited staffing and given the professional expertise of the assigned staff, should operate like a newsroom.
We had no budget, and all the JIC staff were volunteers. We were all trying our best to do our regular jobs while simultaneously handling, in the first nine or 10 months of the crisis, hundreds of media calls each week. If the JIC was unable to answer a reporter’s questions, we assigned them to appropriate departments. The JIC team also authored and distributed countless media advisories and news releases.
The JIC began its life in a crowded room at the health department (no social distancing at that time), moved to an open office concept at the state capitol for a few months, and then finally to a multi-purpose room at the state art museum. We operated with two media relations specialists (one from my DLNR staff, so we were well represented) and a liaison from the health department’s Disease and Infection Control Division. Late last fall we were assigned two Hawai‘i National Guard public affairs representatives to help.
My primary daily task was the production of the Hawaii COVID-19 Joint Information Center Daily News Digest (DND). This was an amalgamation of information (typically by news release) from all the state agencies involved in the response. It was distributed to more than 18,000 email addresses and became a vital information link to all state employees, state leadership, the media and the public. When we ended the DND on the last day of April my e-mail box was flooded with notes of appreciation and thanks for the JIC’s 14-month-long efforts, along with some consternation that the DND was ending “publication.”
My 40-year background as a television reporter and news executive came into play in many ways. I supported numerous agencies with video and photographic elements to supplement their news releases and media output. The most memorable shoot was the two-day long surge-testing event held in one of the tunnels of the H-3 (Hawai‘i has three highways in the Interstate System, though obviously they don’t connect to another state). Dozens of tables, manned by National Guard members and medical volunteers, lined the westbound tunnel, and nearly 10,000 people got free COVID tests during the operation.
Hardest, from an emotional standpoint, were the many news releases I wrote on coronavirus deaths. Until you know someone who dies, this typically felt like a rote writing exercise. After I learned an acquaintance had died from COVID-19, it really struck me each time I wrote subsequent releases that the friends and families of hundreds of thousands of people were forever impacted by this insidious disease.
I also supported the Dept. of the Attorney General by writing all its news releases on quarantine violators and joined special agents on several occasions, to shoot video and photos, as they went to Waikiki hotels to check on recent arrivals who were supposed to be in quarantine.
COVID news often intersected with my own department. The Governor’s Emergency Proclamations closed parks and beaches for a time and limited the numbers of people on private boats – all of which fall under DLNR purview. We issued additional releases each time conditions changed and features re-opened or closed again. At times, it was tough following fast-changing directives from state leadership.
Ten months into this duty I began asking if we could stand-down the JIC and get back to our regular jobs. Initially the JIC staff was overwhelmed by the constant barrage of media inquiries and other demands. Later, when departments geared up with additional professional communications staff and, by and large, began handling their own media inquiries, it became more a matter of boredom.
In retrospect I feel honored and privileged to have provided an appreciated and valued public service during what undoubtedly is the worst global crisis in most of our lifetimes. Overall, it was another great learning experience. We have been “relieved of duty” and collectively hope we are not called on again…at least not anytime soon.
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