San Diego County Communications Honored for Fire, Hepatitis A Response

The office of communications was working two crises simultaneously last year.

by Jim McKay / May 31, 2018

Last December was a bit of a chaotic time for the San Diego County Communications Office. 

There were multiple wildfires, including the Lilac fire, which burned more than 4,000 acres and forced 10,000 residents to evacuate and cut power to 20,000 people. On top of that, the county was still dealing with an outbreak of hepatitis A that began in September and killed 20 people.

For its response and education campaign, the county communications office was recognized by the California Association of Public Information Officials (CAPIO) with the Frank Potter Cowan Crisis Communications Leader team award. The county earned the award for its strong leadership, its quick and accurate dissemination of information to the right audiences, its ability to use all forms of media, for providing a strong, clear voice and for using maps and other graphics to display information, according to Christine Brainerd, CAPIO president.

“What stood out in both cases was that they were prepared,” Brainerd said. “They did an excellent job of ensuring that they had communications programs in place in the event of a crisis and were able to execute very quickly and get consistent, accurate and timely messaging out to different audiences within their community.”

Tammy Glenn, assistant director of the San Diego County Office of Communications, said experience played a big role in the response.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been through a lot of emergencies and disasters and so we have the framework set up to have the right kinds of conversations and be able to mobilize, and a lot of the resources and tools to be able to get information out to the public and to work with subject-matter experts and our executives,” Glenn said.

There were 588 cases of hepatitis A that elicited more than 200 national and local media requests. The county created 20 stories about hepatitis A, which were posted on the county news center website. The news site is run by the communications office, which manages social media, media relations, crisis communications, public outreach, and general information-sharing with other government entities.

The content on the site was viewed more than 35,000 times and had more than 185,500 social media impressions. Brainerd said the news site was reorganized to help make information on hepatitis A easier to find and that the communications office worked with a public health GIS team to create maps that showed cases by ZIP code.

The county organized “ride-alongs” for media with public health nurses, who went out to deliver vaccinations in dangerous areas and for the homeless. It created informational posters and distributed hundreds of them to restaurants, and created information material for the LGBT community, including posters, banners and postcards, as well as Facebook ads and ads on LGBT dating apps.

The county is no stranger to wildfires during the fall and winter and was well-positioned to act in advance of the wind-blown fires. “They know that is a dangerous time for fires, and their strategy was to emphasize prevention and developing prescriptive messages in English and Spanish,” Brainerd said.

“Knowing that we had a Santa Ana [wind] condition and developing that weekend gave us time to put the right resources in place to know that we may be called in,” Glenn said. “Like with any incident, they’re completely unpredictable and you need to have the flexibility to adjust your strategy to how things are changing.”

When the Lilac fire ignited, the county Twitter account generated 2.1 million impressions and 3,349 retweets with 5,466 new followers. The county was responsible for keeping more than 300 regional PIOs abreast of both situations.