State Public Health Commissioner Speaks to CLM Class

By Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director

The quote stood out from the rest of the presentation’s text.

“The right message at the right time from the right person can save lives.”

It’s been attributed to Barbara Reynolds, former Crisis and Risk Communication Advisor at the Centers for Disease Control.

But on this morning, the quote was read by Dr. Steven Stack, MD, MBA, FACEP, the state’s Commissioner for the Department of Public Health. Why? Because he’d accepted an invitation to — on his 50th birthday, no less — speak to a class of Clinical Leadership and Management students in the College of Health Sciences.

It was fitting then, and timely, that his presentation centered on crisis communications — and what it is like to serve as a leader in that role. Frankly, it’s what he does every day.

“I think we’ve seen all of that,” Stack said, noting that the past two years of COVID have offered some “difficult times, but also some wonderful opportunities.”

It was just the kind of talk professor Sarah Kercsmar, PhD, thought could occur when she called six months ago and asked Stack to visit her class. “I just asked,” she said, laughing. “Ultimately, we want to prepare our students for what comes next. And they choose their case studies and capstones.”

For more than 20 years Stack has been a leader in the medical profession. He served on boards of directors and in senior leadership roles for numerous geographic and specialty medical societies. In 2006, he became the first emergency physician ever elected to the American Medical Association (AMA) board of trustees, subsequently serving as board chair and in 2015-2016 as the youngest AMA president since 1854.

Stack also served as medical director of multiple emergency departments, including Saint Joseph East (Lexington), Saint Joseph (Mt. Sterling, Ky.) and Baptist Memorial Hospital (Memphis, Tenn.). He has more than 18 years of emergency medicine administrative and clinical practice experience in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

Two years ago, he was appointed the state’s Public Health Commissioner, just in time for the world to change. He used those experiences to convey to the class how to communicate when times get tough.

He gave them the six principles of Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication:

  1. Be first.
  2. Be right.
  3. Be credible.
  4. Express empathy.
  5. Promote action.
  6. Show respect.

And the five pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Mixed messages from multiple experts.
  2. Information released late.
  3. Paternalistic attitudes.
  4. Not countering rumors and myths in real-time.
  5. Public power struggles and confusion.

Students also learned how to deliver unfortunate news to people — like during a crisis. You should simplify your message, Stack said, take it from a credible source, make it consistent and look for additional information and opinions.

Even though it was an 8 a.m. class, students took to the message, finding it informative and entertaining.

“As a communications minor, this was definitely something that appealed to me,” said Ellee Sidebottom, a junior from Lexington. “And I thought it was very applicable to what I want to do. Plus, his experiences were really interesting.”

“Dr. Stack’s passion and expertise in communication is motivating me to grow my communication skills for my professional career,” said Anthony Marcelletti, a senior from Queensbury, N.Y. “Relating to crisis communication, his mantra: ‘simple, accurate, and consistent’ is something I'll carry with me forever and will help me in my leadership endeavors.”

Stack left them with three bits of advice. “Decide who you want to be before you decide what you want to do,” he said. “Enjoy your life. And when you make money, live beneath your means.

“I wish you all the very best.”

Featuring Stack was just another way to bring a different look to her students, Kercsmar said.

“I didn’t know if we could get him or not,” she said. “But you never know what can happen when you ask.”