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The Value of a Strong Communications Strategy in the Health Care System Merger Process

By Kathy Schaeffer, President of KSA Public Relations and Member, CHEF Chapter Communications Committee

As the trend of hospital system mergers continues, there is one not-so-obvious factor that often results in a greater degree of success in the community once the due diligence is complete, agreements are signed, and regulatory approval is secured. Communications.

Forensic review of a completed health care merger might start with the following questions:

  • How well did members of the board of directors explain their rationale to donors?
  • Did physicians and staff embrace the merger, fight it, or leave?
  • Was the community supportive, or did local residents and community groups take every opportunity to publicly criticize the plans?
  • Did the hospital?s brand take a hit or get stronger with the merger activity?
  • Was media coverage favorable, neutral or damaging?

Savvy health care executives know that a companion communications plan alongside the merger?s business strategy can help ensure that all internal and external stakeholders understand the hospital?s plan and become more likely to support it.

Every health system is different, and how a particular system manages a merger with another system is unique. Each local community has its own characteristics, so dozens of external factors shape whether a merger sounds like a good idea outside the walls of the hospital?s administration office. Yet, while factors may vary, all good hospital merger communications plans share the following elements:

  • A clearly articulated vision and messages, conveyed in patient-first and community-first language.
  • Effective engagement and participation by board members who?ve committed to being the messengers of the merger plan and support the executive staff in the process.
  • Transparency whenever possible, even if transparency means telling an audience, ?we cannot go into more detail about that topic right now, and we will when we can.?
  • A thoughtfully prepared timeline for the entire process that allows you to make regular announcements on your terms, when it makes the most sense to do so.
  • Appropriate physician participation from start to finish.
  • A proactive and responsive plan to educate and engage staff at critical junctures in the process.
  • An accurate assessment of the health system?s image, reputation and relationships with the external communities it serves.
  • A strategy to nurture existing relationships with community leaders and build new ones, with the goal of engaging community support and keeping people informed.
  • A media relations plan that includes proactively generating coverage, managing media curiosity and preparing for potential crisis communications.
  • Confident, credible spokespersons who have completed media training.

A health system merger may be the most significant initiative that members of a health system?s executive team implement in their careers. A merger drives change that can affect generations of patients, physicians, staff members and community residents.

Why wouldn?t a top-notch executive team pay attention to communicating about it?

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Kathy Schaeffer is president of Chicago-based KSA Public Relations, a firm specializing in issues-oriented communications. The firm has represented many hospitals in mergers and in the Certificate of Need process.

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