Scripps' Stanziano maintains cool under fire

Don Stanziano's first clue that he was in for a very long Monday came the day before. The corporate PR director for Scripps Health recalls the weather being a little too perfect on October 21.

Don Stanziano's first clue that he was in for a very long Monday came the day before. The corporate PR director for Scripps Health recalls the weather being a little too perfect on October 21.

"It was the kind of day [all] in Southern California recognize," he says. "It feels like fire weather."

Indeed, Stanziano smelled smoke that day, and the fires that swept across Southern California last October were well underway. As a communicator for Scripps, a $1.7 billion nonprofit with five hospitals in the San Diego area and some 11,000 staffers, Stanziano found himself in the middle of the biggest disaster since Hurricane Katrina.

Stanziano's phone rang at 5am that Monday and he reported to the corporate command center an hour later. Following the 9/11 attacks, Scripps set up its own office of disaster planning, and so a fairly sophisticated process was in place for just such an emergency.

The office worked with each hospital's command center, with representatives from corporate communications, HR, finance, and operations coordinating efforts.

Stanziano began by drafting a memo to employees. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders had already issued a statement telling people to stay in their homes that day. But Scripps employees were essential to the disaster-response effort, and Stanziano told staffers that if they were affected by the fires they had to check in with a supervisor.

The communications team began to monitor the media coverage of the fires and kept abreast of the company's situation with twice-a-day briefings between all of the command centers. With that information, Stanziano and his team began media outreach.

"We were trying to maintain a steady stream of information to the media," he explains. "There was a news hole there to fill and the public was looking to those outlets for up-to-date information."

Meanwhile, Mike Godfrey, director of corporate communications, began setting up internal communications to keep Scripps' employees up on the latest news. Hooked directly into the county's emergency command center, Godfrey's information was coming from the same people who were initiating the reverse 911 calls, meaning in many instances his e-mails to staff were ahead of media reports.

"With so many employees, it was the best way to keep them informed," Godfrey says of the constant stream of e-mails he sent. "E-mail becomes a lifeline for a lot of people. Even though not everyone is at their computer, that information floats down very quickly."

Godfrey and Stanziano stayed in constant contact as the two spent Monday trying to stay on top of the situation. And as Tuesday began, the national media started to arrive and Stanziano's task of monitoring outgoing information was constantly becoming more difficult.

Employees began to report misinformation, like a radio station reporting that all Scripps' hospitals were closed. "It wasn't true and we certainly didn't want people thinking that," Stanziano recalls. "I just called the radio station, did a live interview, and clarified the record."

And with much of the public concerned about air quality, Stanziano pitched a story to a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter to visit a Scripps hospital to report on the air-quality situation and the hospitals' efforts to control it.

"You don't want to be opportunistic in a crass way in a situation like this," he explains. "But you want to make sure you're providing valuable information. There are ways to be proactive without being opportunistic and insensitive to what's going on."

Don Stanziano

January 2004-present
Director, corporate PR for Scripps Health

2001-2004
Consultant, Stanziano Communications

2000-2001
Director of communications, Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA)

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