Around the office with Inova Health System’s Jennifer Siciliano

“I’ve never been in a more stressful situation. I was on the Hill during 9/11. This was a whole different level.”

Around the office with Inova Health System’s Jennifer Siciliano

Did it feel odd driving to work when most everyone was staying home?
It did. The positive part was I had zero traf­fic, but you felt like you were kind of going into a no-man’s land for a while. In northern Virginia where it’s incredibly busy and dense, it’s weird to see no cars or very few cars.

When I came home I literally went right upstairs and undressed, those clothes went in the laundry and I took a hot shower, including hair, everything. Just a different routine to make sure I wasn’t bringing the virus home to my kids. I was wiping my phone down every time I came in the house and multiple times a day obviously, but my computer and anything that was with me in the command center. 

Did anyone working in the comms center get sick?
I’m going to knock on wood and say, no, not to my knowledge. We were really careful. There were two and three times a day temperature checks, Lysol everywhere, masks. And we socially distanced.

Because of the way our campus was laid out, we were able to really socially distance in of­fices and conference rooms. We had great procedures in place to ensure that the folks doing the command center work didn’t get sick. 

What kind of staff was with you?
Early on I established a task force and the entire comms team was not there. We had our PR crisis comms person, our media person, KayAnn [Schoeneman from our PR agency], and our government relations person. But my entire external affairs team went remote pretty quickly.

And I rotated who was in there so we didn’t have a whole lot of burnout. 

Healthcare comms normally deals with life-and-death issues, but was this different?
I’ve never been in a more stressful situation in my career. I was on the Hill during 9/11. This was a whole different level. Normally, in any kind of situation where you have an event, you have recovery and you move on. But there wasn’t an end date. And there still isn’t. 

So you have to operate very differently. The level of intensity takes its toll on you. There were nights I went home and collapsed, because your brain in this situation doesn’t have time to shut off.

Information around the virus changes constantly. Is that frustrating?
It’s incredibly frustrating, but at the same time comms people are generally pretty flexible and can pivot pretty easily.

I’ve got a small team and we had some staf­fing gaps going into this. So we had to reassign folks to take on stuff that was kind of out of their comfort zone.

What have you learned from this?
There’s still a whole lot of other non-COVID communications that needed to be addressed. And that required a very thoughtful approach about what, how and when to do that.

And there are a lot of things that we started as a result of the pandemic that I will absolutely continue. A perfect example is our town hall meetings.

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