A Look Behind the Scenes at Milwaukee’s Pandemic Communications Response

A firm made up of former journalists has managed the crisis communications for Milwaukee throughout the pandemic. Here’s how they made their messaging decisions.

On March 12th of 2020, Kimberly Kane drove north to the Milwaukee County Courthouse. The day before, the first case of COVID-19 near Milwaukee was confirmed. The day after, the first case in the city of Milwaukee would be officially confirmed. The curve was just beginning its gradual rise.

Once she arrived at the courthouse, she walked upstairs to the county’s emergency operations center, started a few weeks ago in the face of the approaching pandemic. The conference room was ground zero for the new effort, with public health officers from Milwaukee and surrounding counties, physicians from the medical college of Wisconsin, with the county executive’s office leading the team.

That first day was no less frantic than you might imagine.  

“It’s kind of like someone turning on a fire hydrant,” Kane says. “That’s what the initial conversations were.”

How fast was the virus spreading? What could be done to stop it? What information did people need? And how could the county get it to them?

 

 

In the midst of the emergency planning, Kane was neither a government worker nor a medical representative. She was handling a unique aspect of the crisis that was particularly crucial for a novel respiratory virus, spread through close contact – crisis communications.

The phrase has grown in popularity in recent years among public relations professionals. It can have a bad connotation from some of the less pleasant situations in which it’s used – e.g. an actor is accused of doing some bad stuff and he enlists a team to help him talk his way out of it – but that’s far from the only kind of crisis that requires a public-facing comms team.

In the case of 2020, the crisis was a public health emergency, one that could cost many lives, and the way to mitigate that was to communicate the importance of social distancing, staying-at-home, mask-wearing, hand-washing and whatever else could slow the spread.

Kane Communications Group was started in 2013 by Kane, who you might recognize from her years as a weekend anchor on TMJ4. The team leans heavily on former journalists in shaping their messages, including Steve Jagler, a former Journal Sentinel business editor, and James Burnett, a former Journal Sentinel and Boston Globe reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the Boston Marathon Bombings.

Kane had been working with the county on media relations and strategic communications since 2015, were called into the first meetings in the new emergency operations center to figure out how this message could reach everyone and be effective.

On the outside, if you were paying attention, you probably remember the first messages that came out of government during the first virus wave: safer-at-home, mask up, social distance. You might have caught Dr. Ben Weston on local television, in print, or even on MilMag Live talking about the state of the virus in Milwaukee and what can be done to slow it down.

Dr. Ben Weston; Photo by CJ Foeckler

Those media appearances and slogans were far from improvised. They were the result of the debates, strategy sessions, medical analysis and more that went on in the emergency operations center, with no time to waste as the virus spread.

“We had to be able to go out with one message,” Kane says. “We had to prevent confusion and get people rallying around one call to action.”

Kane’s team developed a three-pronged approach: media relations, advertising and community relations. The campaign, called “Stay Safe Milwaukee,” revolved around the public health messaging that epidemiologists and medical professionals said Milwaukeeans needed to understand if the virus was going to be slowed.

Media relations was possibly the most visible part of the push. Weston was a major part of that, doing interviews on television and in print. Every day, a press briefing was streamed on Zoom with Weston, other medical and city officials, and often Mayor Tom Barrett discussing the day’s updates and pushing the message to media outlets to report.

Advertising campaigns spread the message with help from the Brewers and Bucks as well, who pushed out safety messages across social media.

“The audience that was least likely to act on the messages that we were getting out were teenagers, late teens and early-20s,” Kane says. “We put together a youth advisory committee [for the city of Racine] to get some insight from young people about what messages they needed to here.”

One of the trickier parts of the campaign was ensuring that people who don’t get their news from traditional sources could also receive the message. The community relations effort reached out to pastors and community leaders in minority communities to spread safety messages.  The messages were translated into Spanish and Hmong as well and materials were given to community health centers in the most accessible language for the patients they serve. For people who couldn’t stay home, safety information was pushed out through media and advertising on how to stay safe at work – hand washing, mask wearing, etc.

That first day’s in-person meeting turned into a week, and then, like many other jobs, went remote, with the team meeting through calls and video conferences. The county developed a joint information committee dedicated to sorting through virus information and updating messaging as the public health crisis continued. The effort has been a constant, ongoing battle, as cases trended down in April, then back up in the summer and down in August, and then back up for the worst spike of all from September through November, down to their current lower levels.

Now the messaging in the daily COVID briefings takes what many hope will be its final turn – vaccine rollout and distribution – and regardless of what the future holds the cost of the pandemic remains. One of Kane Communications’ recent projects with the county behavioral health division was an effort to provide information to local nurses about PTSD symptoms and treatment, as cases of the disorder trend up for health care professionals.

 “It’s a collaborative effort to understand what the most pressing needs in the community are today,” Kane says. “What information do we need to get out, and what support is available.”

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.