|Jamie Maites and Liam Collopy co-authored this article.
When an unprecedented public health crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19 strikes, it can test the communications plans of even the best-prepared organizations, but for healthcare providers at the forefront of the battle against an enemy as formidable as the coronavirus it can be especially challenging. Much of the media focus during the pandemic, deservedly so, has been on the heroic professionals on the frontlines in day-to-day contact with patients—valiant doctors, nurses and other hospital staff—and their selfless efforts.
But what about those healthcare professionals in charge of communicating critical information in a timely manner to the public and employees during the crisis? The ability to communicate clearly and consistently has been critical during COVID-19, as patient volumes and case volumes have fluctuated, the availability of testing has increased, mental health demand has risen, and non-critical procedures have either been postponed or handled via alternate channels such as telemedicine. In this environment, the ability to provide mission-critical information to staff, patients and others, using the right channels at the right time, has never been more urgent.
At MarinHealth, we quickly and proactively responded to the COVID-19 crisis, launching a multifaceted communications program offering sound advice, education and support to the community. As an independent hospital in Marin County, CA our plan focused on reaching a wide range of constituencies, including physicians and staff, patients and prospective patients, members of the community, public health officials and partners. Home to more than 250,000 residents, Marin County has seen more than 6,600 positive COVID-19 cases since March and is one of 19 California counties currently designated as “Tier 1,” the state’s most restrictive COVID-19 status.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)
By working together across our PR, marketing and digital teams we were able to adopt, early in the crisis, a highly flexible strategy and outreach plan that was responsive to shifts in the course of the pandemic, setting a communications benchmark for the healthcare industry.
Putting the plan in place
Even before COVID-19 cases began to accelerate in March, the collective MarinHealth team mobilized to create a blueprint that would allow us to be ready to face the crisis. In putting our plan in place, we took into account the full range of communications vehicles we would need to employ. In addition to using broadcast spots and print and digital media, we considered how best to communicate with physicians, staff, patients and the community at large as the crisis evolved, from breakout, through surge, and more recently into recovery and safety.
The plan incorporated executive communications, signage, direct mail, social media and e-mail, as well as one-to-one communications with our many constituents during each phase of the pandemic. Among the key initiatives that were part of the plan:
- Proactive PR, offering preventative tips from our physician experts to the public via print, broadcast and radio outlets.
- TV, radio and print advertising, including 30-second TV spots, 60-second COVID radio messages, and print advertising in local and regional media.
- The launch of a dedicated MarinHealth COVID-19 web page to keep the community informed of precautions, safety tips and updates.
- Raising awareness of COVID testing capabilities at our adult acute care clinic and telehealth options at all of our MarinHealth | UCSF Health Clinics.
- Virtual classes, podcasts and webcasts.
- Operational updates through our website and aggressive use of social media channels for purposes of conveying critical information and education.
- New digital and print content on issues such as mask and safety policies, screening and testing, telemedicine, and elective procedures.
To more effectively communicate with patients throughout the crisis, we instituted a series of ten weekly emails, beginning in April and continuing through the end of June. Two versions of each email were created, one for our free Health Connection newsletter membership, and one for non-members, which included a special callout encouraging readers to enroll in the free program immediately for timely intelligence.
Each communication included links to additional information, such as hospital, clinic, community, and general health and wellness tips and ideas, and a thematic focus, such as mental health, exercise and nutrition, telehealth and ER/urgent care safety.
Results of the email campaign far exceeded expectations, with open and click through rates well above the industry norm. In addition, engagement with our content has been exceedingly strong, with more than 600 people attending a recent podcast. Moreover, the program generated nearly 400 new Health Connection newsletter members, twice the number of new members that enrolled during the entire 2019 year.
Looking back at the success of our highly collaborative communications plan, a number of lessons were instrumental in helping us navigate the pandemic effectively and in helping us to get critical information and education out to our community constituents.
By preparing and readying ourselves for the crisis early, we immediately knew the steps that we needed to take should COVID-19 cases spike. While a pandemic is by its nature unpredictable, we had the necessary communications capabilities in place to respond immediately.
By effectively mobilizing the efforts and talents of our PR, marketing and digital teams and ensuring we were all on the same page, we were prepared to move swiftly to make sure information could be conveyed to the public and staff in a rapid, accurate and most effective manner.
Through constant communication amongst the team, we were able to provide information to our patients and community in a timely fashion through multiple media (email, television, ads, newsletters, social media, etc.). Knowledge is indeed power, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Frequent and consistent collaboration across our communications team and with our colleagues has allowed us to recalibrate and respond as events on the ground evolved. Our team met—and continues to meet—multiple times per day, seven days a week, providing critical information to help the public and our staff stay informed and navigate through uncharted waters.
Jamie Maites is Vice President of Marketing and Communications at MarinHealth and Liam Collopy is Executive Vice President at Stanton Public Relations and Marketing.