AVMA elevates Communications to a division

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Just as the Bush administration mustered resources to provide disaster relief following the Sept. 11 attacks and appealed to Americans to be vigilant and informed about terrorism, so has the AVMA—in microcosm.

As reported in recent issues, the AVMA response has included deployment of Veterinary Medical Assistance Team members to New York City and Washington, D.C., the American Veterinary Medical Foundation's administration of $260,000 contributed since Sept. 11 to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, and reminders to veterinarians that they are a first line of defense.

The importance of credible, timely communications has never been more clear, whether it is the Bush administration informing Americans about the military campaign in Afghanistan, or the AVMA providing fact sheets on potential agents of bioterrorism.

It was, therefore, opportune that on Aug. 3, just a month before the terrorist attacks, Executive Vice President Bruce Little had announced the creation of an AVMA Communications Division.

The Communications Division combined the activities of the Public Information Division and Marketing Department, and some activities of the Education and Research Division.

"Any management initiative must be aimed at maximizing the effectiveness of the end product by creating synergies between the participants," Dr. Little said. "Therefore, it made good sense to team these staff for optimal results. We have talented, committed staff at the AVMA, and hopefully, we will have given them a format that will best bring out those talents."

Michael Walters, a 30-year AVMA staff member and director of the former PI Division, was named director of the Communications Division.

"The desire was to link together existing public information initiatives with other areas of high public and professional interest such as animal welfare and the human-animal bond," Walters said. "Because part of the message is how it is packaged, it also made sense to pull the marketing function into this division.

"The human-animal bond is a strong way to generate public awareness in a positive sense," he went on. "Animal welfare issues can be positive, but sometimes, misunderstandings and controversy arise, and this can result in public relations problems. When staff who deal with these issues work in the same division, there is a lot more communication on a daily basis."

The synergistic combination has created a division better equipped to respond to challenges such as disease threats and controversies. Staff have a dual role: supporting council and committee activities while also initiating their own projects.

Overseeing the animal welfare and human-animal bond areas is Dr. Gail Golab, who moved from the Education and Research Division to become assistant director for professional and public affairs in the new division. She will continue as staff support to the Animal Welfare and Human-Animal Bond committees, coordinate dog bite initiatives, and direct crisis communications.

It was "a natural communications combination," Walters said, to pool Dr. Golab's functions with those of Public Information under a Communications umbrella. For some time, Dr. Golab had been working closely with PI on a range of projects, from promoting the AVMA's dog-bite prevention program to responding to professional and public questions and concerns regarding a variety of controversial issues.

With the departure of AVMA marketing director Anna Garrido following the annual convention this past July, it also made sense to restructure the marketing staff and functions.

On Nov. 5, Jim Flanigan joined the AVMA staff as the director of marketing (see sidebar, next page). Flanigan brings a strong background in marketing, association management, and journalism to the new division.

"My entire career has been spent doing marketing and communications for not-for-profit organizations," Flanigan said, "so I understand the need to find synergies between what groups within an organization are doing. There is interest by a number of divisions to bring together a consistent, what we might call 'brand,' to the AVMA.

"Branding is not just logos, graphics, copy. The best, short definition of a brand I've heard is that it is 'a promise of an experience.' Branding goes to everything, including how the members interact with the organization, with the Web site, and with staff when they call. Branding is all about enhancing that promise of an experience."

In all, the new division will have 10 staff members, eight of them current employees with shifted responsibilities.

Sharon Granskog moved from the PI Division to Communications, as assistant director for media relations. She has been on staff for 18 years.

Three staff members will work with marketing director Flanigan. Joanne Clevenger is the marketing assistant, and Nancy Dering, marketing secretary. Clevenger has been with the AVMA for 15 years, and Dering, two and a half.

Darci Reagan also moved from the Education and Research Division to support Dr. Golab in the new division as professional and public affairs assistant. Reagan has been on staff a year and a half. Jean Spears and Angela Whitsett continue as administrative assistant and secretary, respectively, in the new division. Spears has been on staff 27 years, and Whitsett, two.

Walters said that bioterrorism is a perfect example of a challenge the new division has already addressed. The close working proximity was conducive to efficient collaboration between Dr. Golab applying her veterinary and editorial background to information gathered by division staff, and Granskog using her media placement background to distribute the resultant informational resources to the news media, AVMA entities, and constituent associations.

Dr. Golab added, "To me, the primary reason for forming this division is to improve our ability to identify emerging issues, develop a message, and get that message out there. To do that, we needed those three important components in one place.

"We want consistency of message and response, and reliability of source. The recent restructuring should improve our response time and the consistency of our messages."

Granskog added, "Our constituent associations will notice the result of establishing the new division more than individual members, because members who call in are going to get a rapid response as usual. But for constituent associations, we'll be one step ahead as far as the big issues."

Dr. Golab believes that eventually there will be a trickle-down effect, and members, too, will start to notice there are more pieces of information available to them from the AVMA, and more from their state and local associations.

The crisis communication element of her work will be to ensure that the veterinary profession is portrayed in a favorable light as often as possible through positive messages. That's fairly easy to do, she said, because the profession's image is very good. It is also a matter of identifying and addressing problem areas before they arise.

For example, when rumors surfaced that veterinarians might have stores of Bacillus anthracis in their clinics, the AVMA prepared and distributed the message that although veterinarians are knowledgeable about anthrax and can provide the expertise to help people and their animals stay healthy, they do not have anthrax in their clinics.

The profession has been somewhat quiet about promoting its central role in animal welfare in the past, Dr. Golab acknowledged, but veterinarians are looking for quality information that's science based.

In marketing the profession, Walters said, the Communications Division's intent is to make the public more aware of the connection between veterinarians working in small animal medicine, large animal medicine, research, public health, and the food safety aspects of regulatory medicine.

The division also needs to do internal marketing, because many veterinarians are not aware of the full scope of their own profession, Walters said. Once developed, the new AVMA image/career video and interactive CD-ROM approved by the Executive Board will enhance that effort.

Some marketing department projects such as Pet Dental Health Month (February) are companion pieces to PI Division programs such as National Pet Week. Integrating other activities should result in improvements and savings.

Granskog believes the new division will also enhance the work of the Council on Public Relations. The council has marketing ideas and is interested in areas such as crisis communication, spokesperson training, and meeting member needs.

Another aspect of marketing will be to develop new member services and market existing services to AVMA members. Flanigan is working with the Membership and Field Services Division to help develop the Membership Needs Assessment Survey and the latest U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographic Source Book.

Flanigan said, "By using the needs assessment survey and other feedback we can gather from our members, we should always be making adjustments to what we're doing, whether it's in the message we're delivering, how we're delivering it, or how often we're delivering it."

The marketing director also helps Membership and Field Services develop other marketing materials, and is involved with the Member Services Committee. He interacts with the Convention Management and Program Committee.

Similarly, Communications Division staff will work with the Publications Division and Online Services. The AVMA publications and Web site offer means to spread repetitive, consistent messages. The Web site is also valuable as an electronic library of resources.

Walters and Granskog have found that reporters use a Web site as the beginning of research, and then usually want to talk with "a real person." Several reporters who found a 2001 AVMA convention press release on bioterrorism on the Web asked to be referred to a spokesperson. It got the press turning to the AVMA for expertise on bioterrorism.

Dr. Golab said, "Veterinarians are experts in animal health, animal care, and public health. The AVMA wants to continue to make sure they're seen as the experts in those areas. The way this division can do that is by helping to produce and provide quality information for our members and the public. That is the goal not only of this division, but of the Association."