U.S. healthcare providers have been under incredible pressure since March 2020, when COVID lockdowns began. Nearly a year and a half later, just as things appeared to be improving, the Delta variant has again caused cases to surge, renewing the challenge for frontline medical professionals.
While it may pale by comparison, these organizations’ communications teams have also faced unprecedented challenges. In addition to managing day-to-day communications associated with the pandemic, an entire new front has emerged, driven in large part by the same vaccines that are our best chance to mitigate the crisis. Here are a few approaches healthcare providers can employ to sustain their reputation as they navigate these challenging times.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '21 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
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Show community connection
Skepticism about the vaccine has fractured ties to a number of the patient populations healthcare providers serve. To re-establish those connections, it’s important to demonstrate your commitment to the community and narrate the ways that you’re collaborating to beat COVID together by:
- Announcing partnerships with community groups, schools, houses of worship and local businesses who provide a critical pathway to reaching local residents.
- Using your website to tell stories about families’ decision to get the vaccine.
- Inviting respected community leaders to take part in press and public events to foster confidence.
- Attending local community board meetings to field questions.
The key is to demonstrate that you’re an active and integral part of the local community, rather than an opaque institution dictating how things must be done.
Go beyond COVID
It’s easy to be consumed by pandemic-related communications, both because it’s the most critical health issue the world is facing and because of the sheer volume of developments that must be communicated. But healthcare providers shouldn’t lose sight of the many other health issues they’re addressing, especially if they haven’t been able to dedicate as much attention to them as in the past due to COVID. Showcase these developments by:
- Maintaining a presence in local media on non-COVID health issues from seasonal allergies to new medical breakthroughs, to reinforce your organization is an authoritative voice across the full healthcare spectrum.
- Promoting digital channels telehealth to deliver the medical information patients need when in-person visits are not always desirable.
- Celebrating non-COVID successes. Chances are that your physicians are saving and improving lives every day, and it’s important to not let these inspiring stories fall through the cracks.
Introspection and dialogue
One of the most surprising stories to emerge around the pandemic in 2021 is the resistance of some healthcare professionals to getting the vaccine. The federal mandate that employees working in healthcare facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement must be vaccinated has put a new spotlight on the issue. This is a tough challenge where emotions can run high, but it also cannot be ignored.
The communications team—in partnership with HR—should look for ways to ensure that the organization is taking a proactive approach to internal communication that focuses on information, fosters dialogue and avoids judgment. Elements of that approach could include:
- A series of one-on-one or small group dialogues where employees can ask questions and voice concerns.
- Easy access to the latest vaccine information and guidelines online and via staff-wide emails, newsletters and other channels.
- A “Vaccine Fact and Fiction” document—online and made available in print—that corrects misinformation, debunks conspiracy theories and directs people to reliable sources of information. With this audience, it’s critical that any claims be backed up with citations to the source material for those continuing their own research.
Stay above the fray
Finally, in an already politically divided country, COVID responses have only deepened divisions. It can be difficult to not let communications wade into murky ideological waters that do nothing to serve your community or strengthen your organizational reputation. Your communication should be focused on bringing sympathy, maturity and clarity to the table.
To ensure spokespersons don’t fall into these traps, media training is essential. Even seasoned spokespersons—both administrators and physicians—have never faced an environment where doing the right thing from a medical perspective is perceived negatively. Prior to any media interview—particularly broadcast or online video—spokespersons should undergo serious training complete with mock interviews to prepare for aggressive or uninformed questions about COVID and the vaccine. One only need watch daily White House press briefings to understand why this is needed.
COVID has asked a lot of healthcare communications professionals, and it may feel there’s no way to win, but the moment demands that we try. By taking a broad and thoughtful view of your organization and demonstrating commitment to the people you serve, you can craft a strategy that addresses today’s challenges and takes your organization forward to when better days return.
Tom Faust is Managing Director at Stanton, a strategic communications firm working with businesses across the spectrum of healthcare and life sciences.