by Lisa Kersey
Most hospitals and health systems are looking to partner or align in some way. Why? For solid business reasons. Among them, the window for incentive dollars offered through the HITECH Act and the ARRA legislation is inching closed and declining reimbursement rates across all payors are just gearing up.
However, some mergers, acquisitions and alignments are failing – it must be about more than just the numbers.
The number of attempted mergers between Catholic hospitals and secular hospitals is a great example. Why do some succeed, where others fall apart? Like other industries, it’s about having a shared vision, reconciling the differences in culture and communicating effectively with all stakeholders.
While it’s true that the Ethical and Religious Directives are a unique and important consideration in Catholic healthcare alliances, it is but one piece of the puzzle – albeit highly charged. There are a number of other factors for healthcare PR executives to consider, once the intent to partner has been decided:
1. Communicate as a united front. Even more than the rest of an organization, the communications teams from both hospitals or health systems must come together early in the process. It is important to commit up-front to a joint external communications strategy to support the overall business goal. Without this commitment, differences in communications cultures can sabotage the pending partnership.
2. Don’t put the cart before the horse. This is true for both internal and external audiences. Do not make an announcement if you are not clear on the nature of the potential partnership, if there are no formal agreements in place, and if you have not yet developed an approved message platform. Once you have a clear direction, make sure you reach all your stakeholders and advocates, and that you’re prepared for the questions or potential resistance to follow.
3. Choose your words carefully so all audiences know the nature of the relationship. Healthcare reform has changed the rules, and new partnerships and alignments previously considered illegal by the FTC are now on the table. Make sure you have clarity from your executive team decision-makers as to the nature of the pending relationship – partnership, merger, acquisition, alignment, etc. – and be consistent in your messaging. Also, make sure you understand the process, so that assumptions are not made as to whether you are in initial discussions versus ready to ink the deal.
4. Put a face on the message. Identify key spokespersons from each organization, and provide media training or coaching on how to rely on key messages to answer all questions and, deal with difficult audiences. Having the same training will help ensure a unified and consistent message.
5. Expect to hear about it on social media. Social media can be a welcome channel of communication – helping to rapidly disseminate your messages and engage key stakeholders, or it can be your worst nightmare – helping to rapidly disseminate the messages of your detractors, and in the process drowning out your message and forcing you on the defensive. Remember two key things: 1) Silence is deadly; and, 2) Have a crisis-specific social media plan for your organization.
There’s no doubt that PR and communications are critical success factors in hosptial and health system consolidation. And when you are bringing two different organizations together into a new model of care, there’s already enough uncertainty. Use communications strategically – to control the things you can, and to respond to the things you don’t yet know.