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The Big Old Story: Build Bridges Not Silos

Our team spent time last week in D.C. at the annual Society for Health Care Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD) conference – quite the mix of marketing and communications professionals exchanging ideas and best practices. It got us thinking about some of the storylines that perpetually circulate in the background about tension between the two disciplines. For years, those storylines have been fodder for countless C-suite surveys, LinkedIn posts and more.

What It Means for You

Even though tension makes for good headlines, we’re happy to report that, as far as we saw, there were no brawls at SHSMD between marketers and communicators.

You can be forgiven if you’ve been led to believe the dialogue between the two halves of “marcom” has become the Jets and Sharks street fight of healthcare communications.

Maybe, in fact, that division reflects the dynamic in your neighborhood as tools and tactics rapidly change and, ironically, as “new thinking” from professionals outside the industry has become a standard practice.

But when we are all at our best, we see this less as a battle royale and more as a powerful convergence between disciplines and experience that can catapult an organization forward. If we can all get along.

After all, the term marcom is a mashup for the disciplines. Let’s work to the word.

Differences? Sure. They have different languages, metrics and tools. Marketing owns the tools, processes and campaigns to move people to use an organization’s services, to become a patient, to come in for a screening, to show up at your ED instead of the one down the street. Marketing captures the brand ethos and helps drive the business forward. It’s a deeply strategic function – not just telling people outside the organization about it but giving them a reason to participate.

Communications is there to engage, explain, guide and foster transparency. It helps people feel good about, or at least come to terms with what’s happening. It defines and shows the value of change. It’s about listening to and aligning people to be part of that change. Communications is also a deeply strategic function. It’s not there to just tell people what the organization wants them to hear. But giving them – especially internal audiences – an opportunity to contribute to the change.

All told, the complementary nature of communications and marketing means that however you choose to structure the team and respective functions within an organization is less of a concern than is the fact that those two must be closely aligned.

How to be aligned and reach an ideal state? A few thoughts:

  • Talk to each other. Every day. Whatever your organizational structure, align marketing and communications. Share calendars. Plan content together. Collaboratively review the organization’s strategy. Share and mutually inform each other’s respective sub-strategies.
  • Learn each other’s language. Different tools and tactics mean there will be language differences. For example? The idea of value or benefit of a service, event or initiative. Marketing to define the value proposition for consumers. Communications looks to define the “What’s in it for me” for employees and other stakeholders. Keep those nuances, but take time to ensure each team member is “bilingual.” Moreover, that each team member respects the language and process of the other function.
  • Learn from each other. If you understand another language, it’s far easier to learn lessons from those who speak it. For example, if marketing is tracking current trends for reaching young patients – say, memes and 60-second TikTok videos – couldn’t the communications team apply those trends to engage younger employees? Not everything needs to be an internal email and memo. Nor does every external outreach need to be a three-page brochure mailed by USPS.
  • Share. Let’s be honest. Sometimes, strategic information gets to one group before the other. When the communications lead is closer to those strategic conversations, it’s important to share with the marketing counterpart and start planning together. For example, if there’s an announcement that necessitates a press release from communications, would the thing being announced also benefit from a go-to-market plan? Or, if the communications team is preparing materials about the closure of a cath lab, would it be worth pausing cardiology marketing while things settle out? Feed each other.
  • Cross pollinate feedback. Similar to the above, it’s important to take best practices from each group and put them into action through the other. For example, what if there’s a new service line that sounds great on paper, but staff aren’t happy about it? Without cross-pollination, marketing may think everything is on track even though there’s an internal storm coming. So, marketing should ask, “What are you hearing from staff?” While communications asks, “What are you hearing from the community?”

Finally, a few thoughts for the individuals in these roles. How do you elevate your work, your team’s value to the organization and cement the seat at the table so you can be part of strategic conversations?

  • Think big yet realistically.  Offer suggestions that support strategic objectives but understand the tactical limitations of your organization.
  • Listen to understand. Understand your organization’s issues, challenges and environment. Be open to opposing points of view.
  • Broaden your network. Build – and maintain – authentic relationships with peers, staff members, executives and thought leaders in your organization.
  • Be proactive. Identify pain points and identify issues where your unique perspective can help. Think about patient experience, physician relations, HR, strategic planning, IT. Don’t wait to be asked to jump in. Just…jump in.

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