Afterwards: PRSA Chicago Panel Talks Impact of Pandemic, Unrest

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

The value of regular, timely, accurate and effective during the most serious public threat of our lifetimes and ongoing national discordance encapsulates the perspectives shared by a panel of communicators last week during “It’s 2021 — What Now?”, a live webinar hosted by PRSA Chicago. Now, nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clearly apparent that the global health crisis tested the mettle of those responsible for disseminating and helping to shape news, as did the protests and political turmoil of the past several months.

The discussion was moderated by Peggy Austin, president of GoldStar Communications, and featured four senior-level professionals.  Here are responses to Ms. Austin’s opening line of questions regarding the pandemic and civil unrest: What are the key issues faced by your organization or client? And, are they still present?

Below is my best effort to paraphrase responses from the panelists.

  • Deborah Song, Director of Public Affairs, Cook County Health: Cook County Health is the largest healthcare facility in the Midwest. With a big event, there’s a beginning and an end. But with the outbreak of some unknown respiratory illness, we don’t know when this will end. The pandemic is a not a sprint, but a marathon. I’ve been training for this my entire career. When will it end? I don’t know, but we have to communicate effectively. We have to take it day by day.
  • Maura Farrell, Managing Director, Kivvit: The big issue is gaining trust and knowing your audience. knowing who to reach. More employees are working remotely now, and we had to employ tools to work with the media to build trust. Trust and communications go hand in hand. I’ve never felt more confident as a communicator in this industry. We’re in a position to help restore trust. 
  • Brandon Carter, Marketing & Communications Manager, Sand Valley Resort: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a big impact on our resort. Being in the travel industry, we have to deal with the question: Who is willing to travel these days? Our priorities are the safety of our guests and staff. We’re fortunate being in Central Wisconsin; we’re close to the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Chicago and Madison. We focused our communications on the region, and we had to be sensitive to people’s travel concerns.
  • Kelli Teno, Director, Pharmacy and Healthcare Services Communications, Walgreens: One of the biggest challenges we faced at Walgreens was the pace at which things were changing, and on such a large scale. We had to make changes based around safety policies at stores, first for COVID testing, and now for administration of vaccines. The information we share has to be accurate and informative to consumers. We have to focus on clarity and transparency. We have to tell consumers: “Here’s what we know, and here’s what we don’t know.”

Now, my thoughts.

As noted in the webinar last week, understanding your audience, your stakeholders, is vital in all effective communications, especially when communicating vital messages during the sustained crisis situations that have erupted over the past 11-plus months. Sharing accurate, cogent messages paramount. The outstanding communicators above exemplified the value of strategic and ethical communications as we advance toward solutions in the (hopefully) near future.

Miss the February 10 webinar?  Visit this link to access the recorded version and take in the balance of this excellent conversation.


Edward M. Bury, APR, MA
Edward Bury, APR, MA, is a senior communications professional/strategic thinker/association management professional with proven experience in marketing, public relations, and related disciplines. He currently manages all internal and external communications and technology transfer for the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During his career, Bury has helped build the brand for an international commercial real estate association, and he has proven strategic planning, project management and team-building skills in real estate, transportation and urban affairs. He has served on the Board of Directors for PRSA Chicago for more than 10 years as chair or co-chair of the Accreditation Committee. He has served on two PRSA national committees and served on the Universal Accreditation Board for six years.  He is one of 3,800 PR professionals to hold Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) credential. In May of 2020, he earned the Master of Arts degree in English from UIC.

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