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She Made the Dome Shine Bright
Elaine Freeman reflects on her exceptional public relations career


Elaine Freeman, vice president of corporate communications, retires this year.

When she was put in charge of communications for The Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine, Elaine Freeman received a piece of advice from the dean: “He told me my job was to keep the tarnish off the dome,” she remembers, “with the corollary that I should help make it shine.”

Ever since that day 23 years ago, Freeman, now vice president of corporate communications, has done just that. Under her direction, medicine at Hopkins has become a hot topic in newspapers, TV and movies. Both the hospital and medical school have topped national ratings for more than a decade. The award-winning public relations enterprise Freeman heads has more than tripled in size and scope and become known for its energetic approach to media relations, publications, and employee and marketing communications.

Freeman has always maintained the low profile PR professionals consider seemly, but in February, she generated some publicity of her own when she announced that she would retire later this year. Recently, she sat down with Joann Rodgers, her deputy director, and Edith Nichols, her director of publications, for a characteristically thoughtful look at both her own tenure and the institution she clearly loves.

Q. What was your job like in the beginning?

A. I arrived with a background in journalism, and it was like coming into a treasure chest. You could just pick the exciting things that were going on and present them to internal and external audiences. You didn’t have to think strategically other than, this is something of interest to me that would be of interest to others. I was here even before faxes, when we had envelope-stuffing parties and snail-mailed press releases, when we had to messenger things all around, and high-tech was a correcting electric typewriter.

Q. Why do you think your office changed so dramatically?

A. The office expanded enormously in parallel with the great growth in the research enterprise and in the number of faculty and staff. While our core budget did not grow appreciably, departments wanted to contract for additional services. A greater sophistication now is needed in presenting information to external audiences, and there’s been a growing understanding of the enormous importance of communicating with our internal audience.

Q. Thinking back, what were the best times?

A. Having Johns Hopkins Medicine’s 1989 centennial come to life was really satisfying. It wasn’t just a party, it was an opportunity that really did establish Hopkins as “different.” The centennial occurred at a time of growth in paid advertising by other medical centers. They’d just hire an ad agency and call themselves a center of excellence. We did things strategically to cement Hopkins’ reputation as the real leader: getting a postage stamp, having JAMA do a cover and special issue on Hopkins’ accomplishments. The media could see we were different and covered our celebration.

Q. How about the first time we were No. 1 with U.S. News & World Report?

A. The first time it happened, we thought it was a mistake! The Mayo Clinic had been No.1 the initial year of the award. That second year, when we were first, we had a lot of fun talking about ads we might have taken—“hold the mayo” was one—and figuring out how to help our clinical enterprise by building appropriately on the designation as the best hospital. We don’t overplay that designation, but we don’t take it for granted, either.

Q. What was the worst day?

A. The day a federal regulatory group shut down Hopkins’ ability to do clinical research and the frustration of not being able to help that agency or the public understand the great harm this would do to those in the middle of clinical protocols. I feel that in some ways my greatest failure was in not being able to put a human face on the consequences of stopping that research.

Q. How does one formally prepare for a job like yours? Is it even possible?

A. People who come to jobs like this have multiple facets with certain strengths. They then backfill with team members who fill missing gaps. I’ve been really fortunate to have had the support of a terrific team. What I did not have when I came here was a background in business. The organization and the communication enterprise now are too big to handle without a good sense of the business side.

Q. What advice would you give your successor?

A. People can get very sucked into the pressures of day-to-day work, marketing initiatives, documenting their every move and minute. But the greatness of Hopkins really is in the greatness of its faculty and staff. The challenge is not to forget someone like the basic scientist who may be doing the most important thing in the organization, to try to make people understand why that scientist’s seminal discovery is important and why it makes Hopkins different.

Q. What do you wish for Hopkins in the next 25 years?

A. In all the years I have been here, there was never a time when there seemed to be enough resources. And yet, people look back and say, Those were the golden years. So I hope that we can move from golden age to golden age, without financial pressures, all the while making discoveries that really do transform American medicine.

Q. Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

A. I wish I had taken more time for my children and my grandchildren. I see my daughter making career and life choices opposite of what I have done because she wants to be more involved in her children’s day-to-day lives. With all the excitement and change, though, Hopkins can really seduce you.

Q. Always having something new to deal with when you arrive in the morning can be very appealing, almost an addiction to some.

A. It feeds your attention deficit disorder. It really does.

—Reported by Joann Rodgers and Edith Nichols

 

 

 

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