Senior vice president for public affairs and communications discusses COVID-19

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Senior vice president for public affairs and communications discusses COVID-19

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Rudy Fernandez, senior vice president for public affairs and communications at the University of Miami and chief of staff to President Julio Frenk, talks about the University’s ongoing response to COVID-19.

Had Rudy Fernandez lingered just five minutes longer at his Washington, D.C., residence on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he quite probably would have witnessed American Airlines flight 77 slam into the Pentagon as he drove along I-395 on his way to work as a staffer at the Republican National Committee headquarters. 

“It’s peculiar how the timing of certain activities in your daily life can sometimes play out,” Fernandez, now senior vice president for public affairs and communications at the University of Miami, recalled of that tragic day. 

He would learn of the plane crash at the Pentagon only after arriving at work, huddling with his co-workers to talk about the catastrophe that had already occurred at the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center. 

But while Fernandez missed seeing, by only a matter of minutes, one of the most horrific acts of violence ever carried out on the nation, he would eventually become a witness and a key participant in the federal government’s response, taking a position as special assistant to the president in the George W. Bush administration. 

Now, as COVID-19 continues to challenge the U.S., Fernandez, who is also chief of staff to University of Miami President Julio Frenk, finds himself once again in the throes of a crisis, as he helps University leadership plan and carry out its response to the novel coronavirus. 

“Before the coronavirus, if you asked me what was the historically consequential moment of my lifetime, it certainly would have been the terror attacks and the events surrounding Sept. 11. It was a shocking day for everyone,” said Fernandez, who sees similarities and differences between the two crises. “Obviously, both have changed our world in the sense that travel will never be the same and that our economy took a devastating hit,” he said. “But a few days after the attacks, most Americans were back at work,” he added. 

“This is different. The impact of this pandemic has been immeasurable,” he continued. “We’ve lost more than 80,000 Americans to COVID-19. That’s 80,000 families directly impacted by the virus. As traumatic as Sept. 11 was, the human toll of this is much larger. And the negative effects on the economy, with most parts of the nation shut down, are substantial.” 

Fernandez weighs in on some of the other aspects of the ongoing pandemic and how it is affecting the University. 

How has the experience you gained in Washington working in a presidential administration helped you in this crisis? 

One of the things I’ve learned is the importance of prioritizing. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, I saw President Bush and his team prioritize national security. President Bush was laser focused on protecting Americans from future terrorist attacks, and he reorganized the federal government to ensure that every available resource was effectively deployed to the mission. Tough decisions had to be made, and he made them. At the University during the past several months, as we’ve navigated through this pandemic, President Frenk has also faced tough decisions, and he has been cognizant of our mission—educating the next generation of leaders and professionals, treating patients on the clinical side, and conducting research to advance knowledge. 

The founders of this University in the charter talked about an institution that would last in perpetuity. And in order for us to be around in perpetuity, we have to successfully navigate periods of crisis. It happened in the first few years of the University’s existence, when a hurricane struck. It happened during Hurricane Andrew. It’s happened during various financial crises. So, what I learned during my time in Washington was the importance of prioritizing resources to ensure the long-term viability of our mission. And President Frenk and the rest of the members of the leadership team are being mindful of doing just that. 

President Frenk has sent out a series of video messages amid the pandemic, serving as a calming and reassuring voice. Why is it important that University leadership be the face of important messaging to its students, faculty, and staff at a time like this? 

When the Board of Trustees recruited Dr. Frenk in 2015, no one envisioned that we would be facing a pandemic. But we are blessed to have him leading the University during this crisis. He is a very thoughtful leader, and in the leadership meetings we’ve had over the past couple of months, he is the calmest person in the room. And that’s what you want from leadership—someone who understands the importance of temperament and sound decision-making during a crisis. His area of expertise is in global health. He understands the issues we’re facing better than anyone. But it’s not just his global health expertise that has been so helpful to the University. It’s his leadership style. He bases all decisions on principles and principles drive decision-making. 

Speaking from your role as senior vice president for public affairs and communications, why is effective communication critical at a time like this? 

During times of crisis, people are hungry for information, and they want it to be factual and disseminated on a timely basis. There are really four principles that are guiding the work of our university communications strategy during this crisis. The first is that everything we do must protect our credibility, and we must maintain our credibility not only throughout this pandemic but also beyond. We must be seen as a source of truth, because in this day and age, in which facts are being challenged and people are questioning what they read in the news, communicating to our constituents—our students, our faculty, our staff, our donors—is more important than ever. So, the information we put out must be credible. 

Secondly, the messaging has to be clear and consistent; we have to speak with one voice. Thirdly, we have to communicate often and through multiple channels. Decades ago, people used to sit by the radio and listen to FDR’s famous fireside chats as he spoke on everything from the banking crisis and the recession to the New Deal and World War II. Today, people are refreshing their social media pages, reading newspapers online, and watching television to get the latest updates on this pandemic. So, we have to use multiple media platforms that are at our disposal to disseminate our message. And the fourth principle is two-way communication. While we’re putting out messages, we’re also receiving messages from our audience. And obviously, social media allows us to do that effectively.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will send about $14 billion to colleges and universities. How is the University of Miami benefitting from this stimulus package? 

The University of Miami Health System has received a couple rounds of funding from the CARES Act, and that has certainly been helpful. But it is well short of the losses we’re experiencing at the health system. So, we’re going to have to mitigate our expenses as best as we can. Now that elective surgeries have resumed, we’re ramping up as quickly as possible to provide the care our patients need and to make sure our health care system can survive from the financial impacts of this pandemic. In higher education, it’s the same. We’ve received some funds from the CARES Act, but it is a small fraction of the potential revenue losses we face over the next several months. And that’s why it is vitally important that we get through this crisis as quickly as possible so that the economy can begin to recover. 

Colleges and universities were among the first institutions to be affected by COVID-19. They sent most students home and transitioned to remote learning platforms. How will the University of Miami emerge from this pandemic, and what will be different about the institution? 

I’m optimistic that we will get through this and that our students will get to experience on-campus learning in the near future. As we look to the fall semester, University leadership has thoroughly thought about and planned for social distancing that will be implemented in our classrooms, living spaces, and dining areas. We’re wrestling with the same issues all universities and communities across the country are. Long-term, higher education in general will need to be more efficient in its utilization of resources to make sure we deliver a great product to our students in a way that’s sensible and that understands the cost and the investment families and students are making. 

Our recent graduates are entering a job market that is reeling. But are there certain industries that will thrive amid this crisis, creating opportunities for college graduates? 

One of the reasons I love working on a university campus is seeing all the exuberance of young college students—their ingenuity and creativity and the tremendous hope and promise they bring to all of us. Yes, they’re entering a tough and challenging job market. But as we get through this pandemic and the economy recovers, new businesses will be created to serve people in the post-COVID world. We’ll see an even bigger dependence on digital platforms. Many people, I’m sure, probably had not heard of Zoom before this crisis. But now we’re all meeting, brainstorming, and strategizing via Zoom. There are even virtual happy hours. There’s tremendous creativity coming out of this crisis. So, I’m optimistic that the economy will recover, that there will be new industries created as a result of the challenges we’re facing today, and that, more importantly, our graduates will adjust and fill many of the leadership roles in those new industries. At 22, they have every reason to be optimistic. 

How has the University’s familiarity in preparing for hurricanes helped the institution in its response to COVID-19? 

It’s been a tremendous help because we’re used to dealing with emergencies. We are used to coming together quickly as a leadership team and making tough decisions in very precise and short windows of time. We do it every time a hurricane threatens South Florida. There is the pre-storm planning and preparation and then dealing with the post-storm effects and recovery. It’s helpful to think of COVID-19 in those terms as well. We are in the middle of this crisis, but we’re thinking about what recovery will look like—how our campus will be when we reopen and kids are back, and how we will continue to deliver world-class education. All those lessons we’ve learned in successfully responding to storms apply here.