J|Insights: Coronavirus & communications, with Aileen Bennett

The severity of the coronavirus outbreak continues to grow globally.

And with it, the buzz and media attention and fear. At the same time, it’s not yet a big issue here in the US. Hospitals here generally aren’t on the front lines of combating the outbreak. In this conversation, our CEO David Jarrard speaks to senior managing advisor Aileen Bennett about the situation and that gap between the attention that’s being paid to coronavirus with what’s happening inside the wall of US hospitals.

Read the transcript

David Jarrard: I’m here today with my longtime colleague, Aileen Bennett, who’s been with the firm for six years and has worked with a number of clients on behalf of the firm and across the country. We’ve been watching closely, like all of us have, the outbreak of the Coronavirus in China and its spread across the globe and the media attention that it’s received.

We thought it’d be great to spend some time with Aileen because, among the variety of clients that she’s worked with over the years, she’s spent quite a bit of time with hospitals and health systems around the country who were grappling with the outbreak of Ebola and wanting to be sure that those clients were prepared internally for that crisis if it were to make its way into their doors. But they were dealing with the media and community concerns, whether it actually showed up there or not. And we’ve been thinking about that as the coronavirus coverage has continued and has increased, but it seems to be making its way into the United States. We thought spending some time with Aileen would give us some perspective on that.

Aileen Bennett:  So I think one of the differences between now and the Ebola crisis of 2014 was the fact that the Ebola crisis here in the U.S. was really centered around one particular hospital, really. Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas had one of the first couple of confirmed cases, and there was all this media attention around Presbyterian and media reports of it really becoming a ghost town in some ways. So many patients were canceling their appointments, and nurses and physicians were concerned about coming to work.

And so not only was it a concern for them and for other hospitals in terms of dealing with Ebola and that perspective, but there was a reputational issue as well. So, I think that was sort of an eyeopener for a lot of our clients across the country during that Ebola crisis because there was that concern of, “Well, what are we going to do if that happens to us?”

I think that issue in and of itself made our other clients more fearful and they were reaching out to us just saying, “Hey, we need to get a plan in place for this. We need to know how to respond. We need to know how to reassure people.” And I think that was really one of the reasons that it became such a bigger conversation with our clients in particular.

DJ: Yeah. Because at the time it was a dramatic business event for these organizations. So far, the Coronavirus is not that. The flu is a terrible event that happens every year to different degrees, and this is added to that. But other than some of the media coverage on the outside, it’s not yet reached that peak, and we hope it doesn’t in the in the U.S. But it’s still an opportunity because it is a virus, right. And it’s an opportunity for our hospitals and health systems and any caregiver to use it as a bridge to teach about how to stay healthy. Do the things that you normally do for good health.

So when the media does call about it, and they will eventually I suspect unless it totally fades away, there’s an opportunity not to be dismissive of it, but to use it as an opportunity to do something good.

AB: Right. I think hospitals have a number of opportunities here.

I think, of course first, it’s important to have that crisis communications plan in place, right? To know, if we have a patient who’s exhibiting these symptoms, how would we communicate about this? Who would need to approve the materials? What is the message that we would deliver? Who’s the right person to deliver that message? Do we have the right channels in place to share it? So really having a clearly defined response prepared ahead of time, or at least an approach to how we would develop that response. And I think that it’s such an important opportunity to not only prepare for that crisis, but to take a really hard look at the communications practices, channels and approach that we have in place.

Even if we’re not dealing with a crisis right now, we know that it’s a great time to take a really hard look and think about, do we have an engaged staff? Do our physicians and employees feel comfortable asking questions? Are they’re concerned? How are we communicating engaging with them today? Do we need to reassure our team members? And what does that look like? So even if we’re not dealing today with an active case of this, we are leaders in our communities. We play a really important role in reassuring our team members and the patients that we serve. So, what are some things that we could be doing now to be leaning into that conversation?

DJ: And when we talk about getting ready, the kind of questions that we would ask a client of ours or a client might ask themselves is, ‘what is our message?’ ‘What are we going to say?’ ‘How are we going to bridge to the bigger things that we want to say?’ And I think, importantly in this case, ‘who says it?’ I mean, sometimes in a crisis plan, the first response is almost always a written response or there’s a spokesperson response— which can be great, but as a clinical issue and as a medical issue and people wanting to hear from a physician or a nurse, we often find that a caregiver is usually the best messenger.

AB: That’s exactly right. It’s really important to know who is that physician leader that we would tap to communicate about this if we need to. And making sure that that person feels comfortable, that they’re media trained, that they have the right relationships with their medical staff—all of those things. Because you absolutely want to see a white coat reassuring their teams and the community that, “We have a plan in place. We’re doing everything that we can, and that we are committed to protecting our patients. And making sure that patient care is front and center of everything that we do.”

DJ: So one thing you mentioned earlier, which I just want to elevate because I thought it was just right, is the message to the community, through the media, but also the message internally to our staff. That as leaders of a healthcare system, we care about them so they can care about others.

Any more about that?

AB: Yeah. You know, right now, even if we’re not dealing with a specific case of this to communicate about, I think having a reassuring message will go a really long way to reminding our team members that we are committed, like you said, not only to the care of our community, but to them.

So, reminding them that we have these infection protocols in place. These are the ways that we’re working to keep you safe. This is what you do if you’re concerned about something. These are the questions that you ask. So, making sure that our team members feel like they have the resources in place to ask the right questions and making sure they know what those are. It’s reminding them that their care and well-being is incredibly important to us. And saying it and doing it in a lot of ways. You know, providers are very busy and don’t always read their email, and there’s not just one way to reach them. And figuring out how we get that message across.

DJ: I really love the point of not just doing it, but saying it because so many times in leadership, because you’re right, they’re so busy. They just assume goodwill— “I assume the nurses and physicians should know that I’m looking out for them or doing my best to look out for them.” And they don’t stop and take the time to actually say it or point it out and miss an opportunity to express what they are doing. And it’s also an opportunity missed by physicians and nurses to hear that and be assured by it. Because sometimes you just don’t know when things are missed in the silence.

AB: That’s absolutely right. And so, it all starts with culture. It all starts with having good engagement practices in place, making sure that we’re communicating effectively, that we’re sharing information, that we’re answering questions. It’s getting away from a culture of bureaucracy or fear or shutting people down, or even busyness, frankly. I mean, I think we can all have the best of intentions but be too busy to really hear people. So, giving people an opportunity to share and contribute.

DJ: It’s a really important point because even in most of our markets today, it is not an issue and hopefully will never be. But it’s still a stress point that’s an opportunity, right? Where hospitals and health systems and other providers of care can live up to their mission and reflect that with their staff and with their community.

Just having this conversation, I’m thinking about some of the other conversations we’ve had around this table, which have been about how hospitals have been the target of billing practices, and the questions about their revenue, and questions about their mission, and really questioning sort why you continue to exist, hospital.

What we’re talking about here is the reason they continue to exist. It’s because that when it hits the fan, the hospitals are on the front line. And it can be a reminder of—for all these other issues that we’re dealing with—the essential nature of hospitals is unquestioned. This is one of those reasons behind it.

AB: That’s right. We’re the people that you know and trust, we’re your friends and neighbors. And not only that, it goes back to that wellness message: we’re committed to keeping you healthy and well, and we’re doing that in a number of ways. One of those ways is making sure that we’re on the front lines in our community of preparing to deal with this if we need to. We’re at the ready, if and when we need to deal with this, so it’s nothing you need to worry about.

DJ: “We hope you never come, but if you do need to come, we’re here for you.”

AB: Right.

David Jarrard