Working for an association that unites and guides infection preventionists during a global pandemic is the definition of “living in interesting times.” However, Elizabeth Garman, vice president for communications and practice resources for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), approaches her role methodically and with the informed experience needed to provide healthcare workers with information critical to keeping themselves and their patients safe. Her team’s efforts to communicate the ever-changing advice about effective infection control practices to members, journalists and the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic is a roadmap for any association operating during an extended crisis.
Association Adviser spoke with Elizabeth about how she and her team have thoughtfully conveyed changing infection control updates while also ensuring members receive the message that they’re appreciated. We talk about working with an external team to accomplish communication goals and what it looks like to keep an association staff engaged when everyone is working remotely.
Association Adviser: Tell us about your professional background. How did you make your way into association leadership?
Elizabeth Garman: My career began in the nonprofit world as a proofreader and editor at the American Cancer Society. After several years, I moved out of the nonprofit/association industry and into the world of public relations agencies, working on new drug launches, disease awareness campaigns, and science communications initiatives. While my kids were small, I was able to do this work on a contract basis from my home, which helped immensely with work-life balance.
While on a contract assignment with a PR firm I had the opportunity to work with APIC, my present employer. After the contract ended, the association approached me to run their in-house public relations department – which was just one person (me). Gradually, my responsibilities expanded to include oversight of our quarterly magazine, Prevention Strategist, social media, and practice resources which are the books and manuals produced and sold in our bookstore.
AA: What inspired you to work in healthcare communications?
EG: I graduated from college with a degree in American Studies, unsure of exactly what I wanted to do. As a college student I had a part time job working in the student counseling center helping other people look for jobs after college. Somewhere during this process, I decided that I’d like to pursue public relations or writing, and since I was a big runner at the time, I thought it would be fun to do that for a fitness-oriented company. Through some information interviewing, I got connected with American Cancer Society and got my first job writing newsletters and editing copy. It was there that I got hooked on the mission of the organization and realized that I really liked healthcare. From there on, every job has been in healthcare. I think what keeps me interested is that I am always learning new things, and sometimes that knowledge helps friends, family, and colleagues.
AA: The past 12 months have been quite a time to be working in infection control. How has your job changed, and how has it stayed the same?
EG: Whose job hasn’t changed over the last year?! Our world has been turned upside down because of the virus. At APIC, our members and their knowledge of how to protect patients and healthcare workers from infection have been essential to helping hospitals and the public understand the basics of infection control. Our members’ expertise was in demand to help journalists cover the story accurately and to assist health facilities manage the crisis. We all went into overdrive essentially.
In communications, we felt we needed to act quickly to poll our members about the growing crisis around lack of PPE and get that information into the hands of the media and legislators. Working closely with our COVID-19 Task Force (a group of member experts who helped us develop tools and educational materials) we launched a member survey, analyzed the results, and held a press conference inside of a week. Our members needed resources: updates on changing guidance, fact sheets, and webinars.
My team worked with others to create those materials and issued regular emails to all members with links and information. We created fact sheets on PPE: glove use, mask use, eye protection; reopening the workplace; the importance of flu shots, and more. I worked closely with the COVID-19 Task Force on a series of Town Hall webinars.
Our members also needed encouragement and emotional support for the stress and exhaustion as the pandemic wore on. We created a video featuring APIC staff expressing their love and support to the members and organized a “We Love IPs” campaign during International Infection Prevention Week (October). And we put out a call for member stories to archive on our website and feature in our publications throughout the pandemic.
Most of this was additional work, on top of other responsibilities. My job has changed in that it has gotten much busier and included working closely with the task force on member education and outreach.
AA: This isn’t your first time working through a pandemic or outbreak. You helped develop communications strategy and messaging during 2014’s Ebola outbreak. What is your process for creating such a campaign? What are your goals?
EG: Communications goals are to promote and reinforce APIC’s position as a national thought leader and subject matter expert on infection prevention and control, as well as raise awareness of the value and unique expertise of infection preventionists.
Identifying and training media spokespeople early is an important strategy – and one we employed during Ebola as well. Because of the onslaught of media interest and interview requests, and the fact that our leaders had very little time to spare, we used a team of three to do the interviews: our past president, current president, and president-elect.
AA: You and your team work with an external public relations firm. What fueled your decision to bring in external help? How do you develop and maintain a working relationship with others who are an extended part of your staff?
EG: APIC has always had the support of an outside PR firm and we were indeed fortunate to have their help during COVID-19. We would not have been able to pull off our PPE press conference without their assistance. Throughout the year, they’ve had their ear to the ground for media opportunities and ways to get ahead of the media cycle. Our next outreach effort is around vaccine hesitancy. In terms of building and maintaining a solid working relationship with outside partners, transparency and clear communication are essential. Delineating roles and responsibilities with clear timelines and deliverables keeps everyone on track.
AA: What role should associations have in communicating about larger issues that affect everyone, such as healthcare and infection prevention?
EG: This pandemic has affected every sector of our society, so associations have and will continue to play an important role in getting critical information out through their communications channels. In many ways, associations are sharing information and partnering in ways they may not have before.
AA: How do you keep your team motivated when experiencing setbacks or obstacles?
EG: I think the most important thing is to keep everything in perspective. Mistakes and setbacks are great ways to learn and work smarter next time. Because we are all remote, we have had to work harder to stay connected and invent new rituals. We have team meetings twice a week and weekly one-on-ones to stay connected. We’ve adopted Microsoft Teams in addition to Zoom, allowing us to chat and share information easily. Our HR team organizes weekly chats over coffee and group games. Our new CEO invites everyone on staff to a Friday morning drop-in meeting to talk about current events and to brainstorm ideas for APIC.
AA: In terms of your job, what keeps you up at night?
EG: I have a lot of balls in the air so if anything keeps me up at night it’s that they start dropping or something important falls through the cracks.