Burnishing the dome
Date: December 1, 2010
After more than a quarter century safeguarding the Hopkins name, Joann Rodgers announces her retirement.
Reputation is the premier coin of the realm in media relations—both the reputation of the institution that’s seeking news coverage, as well as that of the person who pounds the publicity drums on its behalf. In Joann Rodgers, Johns Hopkins Medicine had the perfect match.
After directing media relations and public affairs for the institution for more than 25 years, Rodgers, known as “JR” to colleagues, is retiring Jan. 1—mostly.
For several generations of Hopkins luminaries and leaders, she has served as a savvy conveyer of medical breakthroughs and an indispensable counselor when the news was anything but good. The praise for Rodgers is universal: With uncompromising commitment, she has dealt with triumphs and tragedies in a way that guarantees that Hopkins remains both focused—and forthright.
“Joann has long been the heart and soul of Hopkins press relations for us researchers—a genuine friend to all,” says Sol Snyder, founding director of what now is the Solomon Snyder Department of Neuroscience.
“Her scientific acumen is such that she instinctively discriminates wheat from chaff and has the strength of personality to tell professional prima donnas, ‘your discovery isn’t really newsworthy,’” observes Snyder, recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific accolade, and the Lasker Award—“America’s Nobel”—for his discovery of the brain’s opiate receptors.
In fact, Rodgers has something that only Snyder and a few of his faculty colleagues possess: a Lasker award of her own. She earned it for a 15-part series on heart disease in women, co-written in 1965 with the late Louis Linley and published in the old Baltimore News-American. That, along with her presidency of the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, “gave her great credibility among both journalists and scientists,” says Elaine Freeman, former Hopkins vice president and head of corporate communications.
Freeman persuaded Rodgers in 1984 to leave her job as chief science writer for the Hearst newspapers and join what then was called the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions Office of Public Affairs.
In 1990, the first year of U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals” survey, Hopkins came in second to the Mayo Clinic. “The following year, when Hopkins started its domination of the ##1 spot, we were shocked, but shouldn’t have been,” Freeman says. “Reputation is a major part of the rankings, and JR had helped to keep the Hopkins name and reputation on worldwide front pages.”
Good news, however, is easy to promote. How to put a bad—even horrific—story in proper perspective is something else entirely.
“Her ability to remain calm under fire has made her an invaluable member of the crisis management team, which happily we have not had to activate too many times over the years,” notes Ronald R. Peterson, president of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, who called Rodgers a trusted colleague.
To Dean/CEO Edward Miller, one vivid reminder of Rodgers’ gifted counsel came during the death of research volunteer Ellen Roche in 2001. “Joann gave sage advice about how to deal with that tragedy,” Miller recalls. “Her insistence on proactive candor and transparency was key to Hopkins’ emergence from that situation with its reputation intact—and, in some respects, shining more brightly.”Her tireless energy also was evident in shepherding the institution through production of the award-winning television documentary series Hopkins 24/7 in 2000 and Hopkins in 2007. For Hopkins 24/7, Rodgers once estimated that she exchanged 1,600 e-mails with the series’ producers. She also oversaw preliminary meetings between ABC and some 81 faculty and administrative leaders before a single moment of the 900 hours of video was shot.
“You can’t do work like Joann’s without being trusted implicitly,” says Dennis O’Shea, executive director of communications and public affairs for the university. “That trust is built with integrity, and Joann’s reputation for integrity is unblemished. I’ve considered her a mentor and role model for my own work for more than 20 years.”
Dalal Haldeman, vice president of Marketing and Communications, notes that Rodgers and her media team earned numerous national awards and brought to Hopkins “platoons of national and international journalists and news agencies to cover our discoveries.”
“I have come to know her as the swiftest and most talented writer and editor I have ever encountered,” Haldeman says. “Combined with her vast knowledge of Hopkins history and quick grasp of biomedical science, her skills have wonderfully served our team and our institution.”
Hopkins will not be deprived entirely of Rodgers’ abilities. She’ll become a faculty research consultant for the Berman Institute of Bioethics and teach at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The author of seven books, she also plans to maintain her longtime career as a freelance magazine writer and author.
When the Lasker Foundation gave Rodgers its prestigious prize for science reporting four decades ago, its award citation said her work “set a new standard for clarity of expression, meticulous scientific accuracy and an appreciation for the frontiers and dimensions of modern medical research and therapy.”
—Neil A. Grauer