PROFILE: Mullin keeps NYC Health Dept. comms in good shape

Sandra Mullin, associate commissioner and comms head for NYC's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, takes pride in shaping policy for the city and, often, by extension, the US.

Sandra Mullin, associate commissioner and comms head for NYC's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, takes pride in shaping policy for the city and, often, by extension, the US.

In many ways, the influence of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene extends beyond the city's 8 million residents. Media outlets from all over the world will cover New York's response to bioterrorism threats, anthrax, smallpox vaccinations, or SARS, not to mention how the city is tracking the possibility of long-term health consequences for all those who were in downtown Manhattan in the weeks following 9/11. Sandra Mullin, the department's communications director and associate commissioner, has written extensively on public health and risk communications. But when she talks about the highlights of her career, she invariably emphasizes her office's role in shaping the city's - and sometimes, by extension, the nation's - policy initiatives. "Some stories are [naturally] national stories," Mullin says. "It's more interesting and rewarding when what we do here becomes a national story." She talks passionately, for instance, about the citywide ban on smoking in workplaces that went into effect last year. It was an "uphill communications battle," she notes, and one that could have cost Mayor Michael Bloomberg political capital. "The numerous interviews, the numerous columns that we wrote ... it was all worth it because it was ultimately the right thing to do for people's health," she says. "More often than not, the right communications thing to do is the right policy thing to do." Shaping public policy - and community organizing - is what she always expected to be doing. Two telltale childhood memories stand out: riding her bike to the corner store in London to buy newspapers and living in Jamaica as a teenager, a witness to the country's changeover to self-rule. "I always had a very strong interest in journalism, but my interest in policy was always greater," she says. After college, she enrolled in a political science Ph.D. program, but left halfway through to take an administrator position at Barnard College. It wasn't until the early 1990s that Mullin decided to pursue community organizing. She completed a master's degree in social work at Hunter College. Her fieldwork took her to the South Bronx housing projects. She also did a stint as a door-to-door canvasser for the New York Public Interest Research Group. Shortly after earning her degree, Mullin landed a job as a senior consultant at what was then the city Department of Mental Health. After 17 months, she moved into the department's top communications position. A turning point came nine months later, when Dr. Neal Cohen, then commissioner at the Department of Mental Health, became commissioner at the Health Department, in the first effort to merge the two entities. He invited her to take the top communications job there. "I was terrified, but thought it was a challenge I could rise to," she says. Mullin's work as a community organizer comes out in the way New York maps its health initiatives. The department's latest campaign, Take Care New York, is - on the surface - a 10-step health plan for New Yorkers. It includes action points, such as "get checked for cancer" and "be tobacco-free." Mullin recalls working with a New York Times reporter for more than six weeks before finally convincing him that Take Care New York was more than the sum of its parts. "As he got deeper into the story, he said, 'You know, this is really fascinating - you're setting yourselves goals for the next three years,'" she says. The story ultimately appeared above the fold on the front page. "It created much excitement [around the idea] that you could proactively lay out health agenda." For this reason, Mullin describes the work of the city's Health Department as "much more cutting edge than what other health departments are doing." Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden notes that Mullin works very closely with him on three main communication focuses: media relations, public health efforts, and community outreach. "Sandy makes sure that the department stays out of trouble and helps us get our message out," Frieden says. "She is widely respected for being accurate, honest, and straight-shooting." In addition, the Health Department, which once had a large public health- education group, has now integrated those responsibilities into the communications office. "So much of public health is health education," he says. New York, of course, has also had its trials by fire. The city's first crisis communications test, Mullin notes, was the West Nile virus outbreak of 1999. A skeleton crew worked 18-hour days with very little backup to meet the media demand for information. "There was a time when none of us wanted to go on vacation because we felt guilty," she admits. "I've seen people sleep here; I've seen people go without hot meals." As the lead communications officer, Mullin's role includes determining when and how often to hold press conferences (immediately when news breaks, as frequently as possible during the early phases of a crisis, and at regular intervals as the event unfolds.) She also prepares for countless what-if scenarios with written messages, and by building media relationships and readying the Incident Command Structure that is put in place during crises. But the 30-strong communications staff (including five press secretaries) approaches the task with a certain degree of courage. They have to. An event like last month's, when Pfizer donated 25,000 courses of nicotine patches to the Health Department, will flood her office with calls. "Not a lot of departments are brave enough to partner with the pharmaceutical industry, take its drugs," Mullin says. "All of these events create a rush of media for us." There's also courage in expecting the unexpected. "I drive over the bridge sometimes and think anything can happen," she says. "I feel very lucky to have worked in this field and department [with people] who really have their eye on what's important from a health perspective." Sandra Mullin March 1998-present NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene, associate commissioner/comms director February 1996-present City College, CUNY, Center for Worker Education, adjunct instructor in sociology October 1995-March 1998 New York City Dept. of Mental Health, public education and community affairs director, (1997-1998); senior consultant, Bureau of Strategic Planning (1995-1997) June 1994-October 1995 Hartley House, program coordinator September 1988-September 1992 Barnard College, program coordinator August 1984-September 1998 City College, CUNY, program coordinator

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