A Message of Hope

April 2021
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On Feb. 23, I was honored to host Tony Sclafani, senior vice president and chief communications officer of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, as part of the PRSA Storytellers series.

In March 2020, as New York City became an epicenter of COVID-19 infections, the Javits Center was transformed from a top trade-show destination into a FEMA-operated medical facility — in less than a week. 

During the 60-minute virtual conversation, Sclafani recounted how he worked with 20 different local, state and federal agencies in converting the 2.1-million-square-foot convention center into a field hospital with 2,000 patient units. Today, the Javits Center serves as a vaccination center. 

He shared insights on crisis management, internal communications and media results. What follows are edited highlights from the conversation, as reported by Managing Editor Amy Jacques. (You can read the full post on PRsay.)

On concerns keeping him up at night: 

[T]he crisis at the time was so much of an unknown. That was the scariest part. All of us were thinking we could bring the crisis home to our families. When I go home at the end of the day, can I kiss my children? What do I do with my clothes? 

My wife is a nurse practitioner. She suggested that I have two sets of clothes. I would have a set of clothes for Monday that I’d wear, come home, wash them, put them aside, and then wear the second set of clothes, and then alternate. It sounds a little crazy but, in essence, you needed to do that at that point. 

On the internal comms function:

One of my goals was to facilitate communications with our employees who are not here. I started a daily email wrap-up of everything happening around the city, around the country, around the world and in the building. It was meant to keep us connected. 

I’ve been writing it every workday, and I’m still doing it a year later. It gets forwarded to our stakeholders and vendors and contractors, everyone wanting to know what’s going on. Employees have been thanking me, saying, “I knew what was happening because of the emails.”

On lessons learned as a communicator:

One thing that hit home for me from the beginning [of the pandemic is that, in PR, we tend to be] focused on a press release, on one particular story we’re going to get published. You tend to think that’s all you need to do: Write the press release, send it out. It gets picked up and you’ve done your job. But the press release is just the beginning. The story is the most important thing. We remember stories. We don’t remember press releases.

I focused on making sure [the Javits Center was] seen as a good community partner, because that’s going to last way beyond COVID. That goodwill that people have when they think of us is going to translate into business down the road, when we can host events again. 

On hope:

The vaccination center is a much better story than a hospital… because we’re giving people hope. In the emails, in our social media posts, we’ve emphasized the concept of not giving up. Don’t give up on New York. Don’t give up on this building. Don’t give up on each other. It’s a message that people want to hear.

Return to Current Issue Internal Comms for Employees Near and Far | April 2021
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