Defenders of the healthcare brand

How healthcare communication professionals can drive the top line while protecting the bottom line.

For healthcare PR and marketing professionals, intentional communications has never been more important to the brand. Unprecedented consolidation in the industry continues as providers shift their business models from being rooted in volume to driving value. What’s more, technology has changed the way consumers, patients and even employees communicate, seek information and define “the news.”

For healthcare communicators, these changes will fundamentally impact the way people perceive and experience your brand. Not to mention creating new risks to manage. The way you communicate can make or break your brand. In fact, according to a report published by Harvard Business Review, based on a global survey of nearly 600 executives across health and other industries, effective communications was identified as one of the top three factors most likely to bring success. And it’s worth noting that it ranked second only to delivering a high level of customer service.

The good news is that most healthcare providers already are focusing on delivering a higher level of service, primarily through patient experience initiatives. The bad news is that most are not investing in enhancing communications. So while healthcare communicators have traditionally been thought of as promoters of the top line, today’s healthcare market requires them to be equally adept at protecting the bottom line.

Building reputation through change
If there’s one constant in healthcare right now, it’s change. And if there’s a second, it’s ineffective communication, particularly during times of change, which is unfortunate, since every organizational change represents either an opportunity to build your brand or detract from it.

Sometimes, providers are so focused on the change itself, that communication about the change from a brand perspective is all but lost. Other times, organizations lack good infrastructure for effective communication to deliver meaningful information and engage with stakeholders. Either way, providers are investing millions of dollars in new business models and technologies, as well as new affiliations intended to improve their market position and long term sustainability. Ironically, at the same time, they are shortchanging themselves on the potential benefits of these changes, and even losing money by short-circuiting communications.

dollar-941246_960_720A McKinsey study examined projects across 40 companies and assessed, among other things, the effect of organizational change management on a project’s ROI. The study findings are clear:

Just as the strongest brands are built from the inside out, so too, the best return on investment occurs when you galvanize internal audiences around a change first. As providers continue to be challenged on top line revenue because of declining reimbursement trends and increased risk-based contracting, guarding the bottom line is essential, especially in times of change.

Protecting reputation through crisis
Speaking of protecting the bottom line, leading healthcare providers are proactive when it comes to crisis communications and preparedness. While the cost of recovering from a crisis varies by organization and the strength of the brand going into the crisis, no one doubts that the cost is real. Just ask Chipotle. Or Texas Health Presbyterian.

For healthcare providers, the stakes are especially high and the opportunities vast, as evidenced by the unrelenting headlines. Yet, most hospitals continue to be reactive when issues hit home. Outside of plans and drills for managing natural disasters, most hospitals and health systems lack a robust plan to help prepare them for protecting their reputation, no matter the size or source of the issue or event. But why? The answer: most healthcare organizations are dealing with the immediate burning fires. If there are no flames, it will have to wait. But waiting can’t be an option if you are serious about protecting your reputation. And in the era of risk-based models of care, it’s prime time for healthcare communicators to demonstrate their role in minimizing organizational risk and the associated cost.

despair-513529_960_720Consider this estimate: A recent IBM study estimated the cost of “lost business” resulting from a data breach at $1.57 million. Included in this estimate were increased cost of customer acquisition and diminished goodwill.

Here are four tips to help you prepare for managing a crisis and minimizing reputational fallout.

  1.  Imagine your risk. Invest a few hours of time to engage with your communications team and key stakeholders to identify scenarios for which you are at risk. What scenarios have you dealt with in the past? What have your competitors experienced? What are you seeing in the headlines? Be thorough but also be realistic. Then categorize and prioritize your scenarios.
  2.  Conduct an audit. This will help you understand your reputational risk and enable you to identify and correct any deficits in process, resources, infrastructure or approvals that may be needed. Do you have key policies and procedures in place to manage a crisis? Do you have key spokespeople and identified subject matter experts? Have they been media trained? Do you have draft messaging prepared, including social posts? Do you have a dark site?
  3.  Create/revise your reputation management plan. Based on your risk imagination exercise and results of the audit, create a detailed playbook. This should include processes, procedures, resources, roles and responsibilities, decision trees, messaging, media training schedules, scenario-based training schedules, post-crisis evaluation exercise and dates for future revisions (annually is advised).
  4.  Invest in scenario-based training. There is no better way to prepare for a crisis than to pretend like you’re in one and evaluate your performance in a “safe” environment. From your imagination exercise, choose a few of the most likely near-term crises as the basis for your training session. Participants should be members of the team most likely to be impacted by these scenarios.

Just as providers are shifting their conversations and business models from managing sick care to promoting wellness and prevention, healthcare communicators would be wise to shift from reactive crisis planning to proactive reputation management. Because when it comes to a crisis, the fallout goes well beyond the immediate financial impact. It’s about restoring relationships and trust with key stakeholders. And the cost of reputation recovery is much greater if you’ve neglected to invest ahead of time.

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’sOctober 2016 – Healthcare & Medical PR Issue. 

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