PR’s Top Pros Talk COVID – Marvin Stockwell
Marvin Stockwell, Director of Media Relations, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital on Science Going Mainstream
Marvin reminds us that this is the whole world’s crisis and we all have a role to play. This is a time for brands and non-profits to be flexible and give themselves permission to try new things. He encourages organizations to use television and media to convey how they are being helpful and useful during these challenging times.
Marvin also emphasizes the uptick in the interest and demand in science-related stories among the media. Audiences want to hear these stories now more than ever.
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DOUG: Marvin what is your most important piece of advice for communicators navigating COVID-19 especially those in the non-profit space?
MARVIN: I think be flexible is the main thing. This is the whole world’s broken play. PR people are trained to to ask what would a reasonable person expect a responsible organization to do in a situation like this when facing a crisis. But this is the whole world’s crisis and we all have a role to play, and I think we need to bear with one another we need to give ourselves grace and we need to realize that no one could have foreseen this and no one has all the answers. I think that’s opened up to a great kind of like permission, broadly speaking, to try new things. So give yourself that permission is what I tell non-profits.
DOUG: That’s great. And St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital there might be some who aren’t familiar with your mission and mandate. Can you maybe give us a couple sentences on what St. Jude is about?
MARVIN: Absolutely. The Mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is to advance cures and means of prevention for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. A lot of people know that actor Danny Thomas founded us about 58 years ago. He was known to say “no child should die in the dawn of life,” and that’s really a kind of a guiding principle for us. So in everything that we do, both on the treatment side and the research to do to cure diseases, is focused on that.
DOUG: And just for disclosure I should share that I have worked on your fundraising side promoting that through a satellite media tour. You’ve really embarked on a couple of interesting initiatives. Among them was an effort to reduce children’s anxiety and then also trying to help with research and organizing of what’s happening to children with cancer during this time of COVID-19. Can you maybe share a little bit about that?
MARVIN: So our St. Jude global office stood up a global registry and observatory just figure out how is the virus affecting children with cancer. And we’ve convened a conversation with oncologists and pediatricians and nurses and other health care workers all across the world and the advantage of that is we get to hear from our colleagues elsewhere in the world where the virus peaked first, and it’s not just how it’s affecting the patient, but it’s also how resource allocation disrupted their health care system. How might we who are behind that curve respond better knowing getting advice from colleagues in China or Italy.
DOUG: So our survey has found that for PR people it’s gotten way more important to get their spokespeople in leadership interviewed on television. In fact, 83% of them said that it was more important, because of COVID, to get their spokespeople on. A slightly lower number said that for the CEO. Do you feel it’s more important to be getting your message out in the media, and what are some things to think about when trying to do that?
MARVIN: That’s a great question. I would say that it really depends on what you have to say and don’t obviously go pursue being on television just to do it. You really have to say how can my organization be helpful and useful in this context. If you can answer that question then I think you absolutely have something to offer. What I’ve found is that there’s been such an uptick in interest in science, broadly speaking, the kind of like scientific expertise of St. Jude is just being sought out at a much higher level than is normal. So the fact that we have a very deep bench of infectious diseases researchers and clinicians is just, even before we proactively pitched them we were just like inundated with people saying “can you put doctor Robert Webster on to talk about how pandemics work and what we can expect.” So we might not have actually, before we even had a thought of that we should pursue it, we were on broadcast way more than we had been, and just all media. And I think that has to do with just an uptick in interest in science, and I’m in hopes and I think that will remain elevated.
DOUG: Yeah it seems that’s what we’ve experienced for the first time in quite some time. My media relations team was reporting that broadcasters were reaching out to them – “Hey do you have anything for me?” We’re seeing, from the satellite media tours, double the media response that we were getting, and we’re able to turn projects around much quicker than in the past. Early on in this we had a project – in four days we had 30 earned TV bookings. This doesn’t normally happen and there’s a heightened sense of interest.
MARVIN: That’s that’s what it is. I feel like you know in the past I would deal with like, OK, in the trade media we can really get into the weeds of science, but in top tier consumer you have to keep the science light. But now that science is providing all the answers to this thing that is killing people and wrecking our world economies, all of a sudden Joe and Jane and everybody are very interested in what the science is telling us. So I just think there’s a heightened appetite for science and I I’ll find myself reading something and I feel like this is something that I normally would have read in a trade publication, but yet I’m reading it in a top tier consumer outlet.
DOUG: Finally, one area that’s important is COVID had different impacts on different diverse communities, whether it’s age, ethnicity itself. How do you and as a PR person factor the need for diversity and diverse sort of impacts in communities in what you’re doing?
MARVIN: Well, St. Jude was founded with the idea of equity and equality, back to Danny Thomas wanting an integrated hospital in the south. That was a very important thing to him. So we have like deep historical roots of caring about that. Flash forward to the current day, and I would say that that global registry is indeed an equity issue. What we’re learning through the science is that COVID-19 is not so harmful to children with cancer when they’re exposed to the virus, however, because in underresourced countries diverting healthcare resources to fight code is actually disrupting their entire continuum of care. The sad thing is, the thing we worry about is that children with cancer, that is very treatable, may end up dying of those cancers because the healthcare resources are diverted. And so that’s where we get into a kind of global equity conversation. And so our registry is really aimed at having that conversation among clinicians and researchers so that we can say how do we mitigate those harmful effects, especially in low and middle income countries.
DOUG: Thanks so much for your contributions. Very important point that especially those who are involved in helping with treatments of many illnesses, many conditions, or diseases really need to step up their communications so their key audiences don’t get left behind and just as a final thought I should add people who might not know that no patient is ever charged to be at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital which is another unique aspect of what you do. Marvin thanks so much for being with us for this great discussion. We really appreciate it.
MARVIN: Thank you so much for having me. I Really appreciate it.