About CASE
Paul Hennessy

This profile from the September 2004 edition of the BriefCASE Newsletter highlights the career of Paul Hennessy

Paul J. HennessyPaul J. Hennessy, director of publications at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute since 1999, has more than two decades of experience in higher ed communications and marketing at such institutions as Boston College and Colgate, Hofstra, and Santa Clara universities. Many of the publications Hennessey oversaw won regional and national awards from CASE. Dana-Farber's magazine, Paths of Progress, has won top honors for the past four years from the Publicity Club of New England. Hennessy has earned degrees from Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School and also studied at Stanford's Broadcast Journalism and Public Affairs Institute. He is also a former newspaper journalist who spent two years as a U.S. Army officer in Germany. 

Early in your career, you made a switch from journalism, as an Associated Press and daily news reporter, to higher education communications. Why?
I began reporting for a daily newspaper in Bremerton, Wash., covering a Navy nuclear shipyard and the extensive military-industrial complex near Seattle. It was an exciting assignment for a former army officer, especially because of the strategic importance of the area during the Vietnam conflict and all the related protests. I had a fair amount of latitude in covering the beat and enjoyed it far more than the wire service reporting I subsequently did with the Associated Press. I left Washington to freelance at the Munich Olympics, a challenging reporting experience since I arrived the day the Israeli athletes were captured by terrorists. I tried to understand and write about those tense events for the next week until the Israelis were all tragically killed in an airport shoot-out. 

The offer to edit Hofstra University's new alumni publication in 1973 was attractive in many ways. Journalistic communications at an educational institution-with subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology-was intellectually stimulating, even more so since the university president, Robert Payton, was a former journalist. I soon learned he was one of the most highly respected leaders within CASE for many reasons, not the least of which was his emphasis on clear communications, good writing, and creative approaches to telling the higher education story. To me, in my first college communications position, he represented the most enlightened kind of university relations approach and was a true role model. 

What skills from your journalism career served you best in higher education and today in healthcare communications? 
Aside from the nuts and bolts of writing, editing and management, the main characteristic-whether you're a newspaper reporter, a higher education, or healthcare communicator-is relentless curiosity: the persistent drive to probe beneath the surface of events. That can be described as a nose for news or a license to be nosy, but the primary instinct is a hunger for learning all you can about any subject, however esoteric, and being able to explain it interestingly to others. 

I was an American civilization major in college and never took a journalism course, but felt fortunate to get the kind of in-depth writing, editing, and photography experience that small- to medium-sized newspapers best teach. Moving from journalism to higher ed communications, it's also helpful to have developed a political sensitivity that some reporters, who aren't keen on the bureaucracy involved in higher education, find challenging. Some aggressive journalists can be politically tone-deaf and have difficulty switching gears when confronted by layers of approval and review they find in universities or healthcare.

What is unique about managing publications at a high profile health organization like Dana-Farber as compared to a higher education institution? 
Dana-Farber is one of the top five comprehensive cancer institutes in the world, and is also a teaching facility affiliated with Harvard Medical School. While that association involves many similarities to academic institutions, the institute's mission to advance the understanding and treatment of cancer-in more than 100 forms of the disease-creates significant contrasts. Our ultimate goal is the eradication of cancer, AIDS, and related diseases, along with the fears they engender. Much of the publications' responsibility is to help educate our readers on current research progress, including the potential for preventing some forms of cancer through lifestyle adjustments and early diagnosis. 

While the communications principles of telling the story effectively are similar in higher education, there's more of a requirement to translate cutting-edge research in terms non-scientific audiences can understand. Such focus on a defined topic can result in very predictable content unless you exercise constant effort to reach beyond the surface and find stories that are unique. You need to cultivate and talk to researchers, patients, staff, and volunteers to find ways to personalize and humanize their often heroic and touching stories. 

We achieve high visibility through our eight periodicals, including the flagship magazine, Paths of Progress, sent to 70,000 readers who are institute supporters, current patients, the research community, and the scientific media. In terms of circulation, our outreach ranges from a biweekly internal newspaper for 3,500 institute employees to a quarterly fund-raising newsletter that reaches 140,000 readers, mainly supporters and patients. We also provide editorial, design, and production assistance for publications written by patients for other patients.

Describe a "day-in-the-life" challenge, such as taking a highly complex subject and making it interesting to a wider audience. 
We have some excellent science writers on our publications staff. A recent challenge was a story on the role of biostatistics in cancer research, not the most scintillating topic you can imagine, at least on the surface. How can you cover such a topic and make it interesting to a largely lay audience? Applying the basic reporting style of "WIIFM" (What's in it for me?), the writer very effectively used analogies to explain how new scientific methods have the potential to change everyone's lives. The story we ran in Paths of Progress won a national science-writing award: the Clarion Award given by the Association for Women in Communications in 2003. 

Is it part of your mission to bring hope to your readers? 
Yes, as long as it's balanced and realistic. We try to analyze where researchers are achieving real breakthroughs and making progress in curing some forms of cancer. We probe the perspectives of investigators, clinicians, and patients. Health care is very different than even a decade ago because patients and their loved ones now have access to so much media and Web health information. It's our communications responsibility to distill the facts and make sense of the most valid data. The key is taking a balanced approach to the progress being made in cancer research and care here and throughout the world. Science can bring cautious optimism-that's a major part of Dana-Farber's story-but we must always be alert to sorting reliable hope from ever-present hype. 

How is Dana Farber integrating online publishing with traditional print media?
There are three teams within our communications department: publications, media relations, and interactive/electronic, which manages the (internal) intranet and (external) Internet. We are working to determine where our stories and messages can best be conveyed. Having launched our intranet-called DFCI Online-in January 2004, we're now surveying and analyzing institute employees to be certain we're optimizing the best uses of print and electronic media. I think most organizations, including CASE, have to grapple with this question. We now have more communications potential than ever before, but how do we best convey messages to receptive audiences? Are longer messages more appropriate for print and shorter messages for the Web? How much can readers absorb in print and online? The patterns are constantly changing, and involve significant generational differences. Dana-Farber can be an intense and dynamic environment so we have to resist the tendency to "over-inform" our various audiences, who are busy enough without having to deal with communications clutter. 

Do you have any communications "success stories" to share?
Often communications success comes from living through a crisis, telling the story honestly, and demonstrating that the institution has grown from the experience. At Dana-Farber, for example, a fatal chemotherapy overdose incident 10 years ago led to reforms that have made the institute a widely respected national leader in patient safety. The confidence of the institute's leadership to directly address the issues involved and allow the story to be told honestly-warts and all-not only enhanced Dana-Farber's overall reputation, but helped build loyalty among supporters who now contribute more than $90 million annually to support its research and care. 

What for you determines whether a printed publication is worthy of an award for excellence? 
Does the article, magazine, or publication tell the story well? Does it convey the message-in words and images-through the people who collectively shape the institutional personality and spirit? Photography and design are important, but they must enhance the basic foundation of a well-researched and thoughtfully reported story. 

Having judged several CASE awards competitions-including some for admissions and fund-raising materials-I've noticed how often well-designed publications make the first cut. But, inevitably, given a reasonable standard of reader-friendliness, the judging gets down to content rather than design. In terms of how a printed publication is judged, it comes down to: How well is the story told? If the copy is not well written or if it is filled with clichés found in most publications, it definitely drops in the rankings. Judges, in the end, look beyond the design, photos, and flashiness to ask: What is the message? What is the story being told and does it ring true? My confessed bias is that of a writer-editor, but designer-judges, in my experience, base awards for excellence on similar criteria. 

What are you most proud of in your career?
I consider "giving back" to the profession more important than winning publications competitions, satisfying as such recognition can be. That opportunity was provided through CASE and through assisting talented staff members every place I've been. 

I've greatly enjoyed building esprit de corps among teams of communications types who jokingly referred to themselves as "ink-stained wretches," but who showed sincere pride in applying the best journalistic principles to communicate their institutions. I particularly recall working hard to convert one excellent-but defiantly right-brain-photographer into a fine writer-photographer. It was certainly an excruciating editorial process, especially for him, but the end result was that he "found his voice."