Crisis Communication: How you act when times are good can assist you when times are tough. Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center Rancocas, Willingboro, NJ
Opportunity: Help a former for-profit hospital become a good community citizen while softening negative PR of the closing of its popular sister hospital six miles south.
Process: A multi-year process of community involvement and media cultivation; fair, honest and timely communication of issues; a strategic approach to both marketing and PR for both institutions.
Result: Hospital closing announcement well coordinated; occupied no more than one day in media; negative publicity minimized. Contributed to a strong transition of services with ninety-five percent of the sister hospital ED volume coming to other facility.
The “AHA” Moment: The for-profit hospital treated the community as such. It was invisible in terms of civic involvement. The administrators were unknown. Knowing what healthcare trends were spelling out, it was crucial to then get involved in the communities served to build relationships and tipping point for choosing services and lessening the impact of negative events. It came down to a for profit versus a not for profit mentality in many respects.
The Story: The hospital’s name at the time was Rancocas Hospital and its sister hospital was Zurbrugg Hospital, six miles apart in Burlington County, New Jersey. Each offered duplicative services. Zurbrugg had been in the community for nearly eighty years but was financially suffering. Rancocas had been in the community for just thirty years, many of those as a for profit entity that had little public visibility until Zurbrugg, in a David and Goliath move, took over the larger hospital in the 1980s. Each would become members of one of the first cross-state health systems, Graduate Health System, based in Philadelphia. Rancocas was the best financially performing hospital in the system.
A two-fold scenario was being developed that would set the agenda of the marketing function for the next seven years. It was critical that the Rancocas facility be actively marketed and become actively involved in the community. For the fate of the Zurbrugg facility was starting to become inevitable and would lead to its closure. And there was the second part of the scenario – actively engage community leaders closest to Zurbrugg to educate them about healthcare in the 1990s and slowly prepare them for what would happen. For when Zurbrugg closed, it was crucial that the patients come to Rancocas and not competing hospitals and health systems. So the taste that community leaders had in their mouths for Rancocas and the Graduate Health System would be key in defining what would happen when all was said and done.
And so the odyssey began. First, the Rancocas story. In short, everything was done to make Rancocas a vital member of the community and to involve employees and management in the community so that real faces and human beings could be identified with the facility. It was multi-faceted. We strengthened ties to the community through partnering and participation in events. We developed an award-winning event that the community rallied around. The local daily newspaper and cable company became prime sponsors. And the hospital participated in their events and took active roles in the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Chambers of Commerce and other associations. Hospital leaders participated widely in community boards and rotaries. We completed a name change and launched a marketing and media campaign for the Rancocas facility. We instituted a program involving and rewarding employees for identifying media stories. And we partnered with the daily newspaper to host a monthly medical hotline column and call-in program, developing key relationships with the editors and publisher of the paper. We took active roles in lobbying on behalf of healthcare issues and being a voice in the community. And the numbers were showing success both in terms of patient volume and in marketing surveys gauging name recognition and likelihood of use.
Many of the audiences we encountered for Rancocas – ambulance squads, physicians, volunteers, employees, politicians, media – were the same audiences that we would speak to about Zurbrugg. So, we were slowly building up the perception and good will toward Rancocas among key constituents that would be needed when Zurbrugg closed.
And it is to those audiences that we reached out midway through those seven years. We actively engaged them in town hall meetings and private meetings to slowly educate them about healthcare finances, the situations of the two hospitals and why it was impossible to continue duplicative services six miles apart. When the time came, they understood. And they worked with us to close the Zurbrugg facility in two stages. The emergency department was kept open after the first stage until the community was satisfied that the six mile trip to Rancocas and the bypassing of Zurbrugg by emergency squads would not be harmful to patient health and safety. Then, the facility completely closed in 1996.
The announcement was well coordinated and expected. It occupied no more than one day in the local daily newspaper and negative publicity was minimized. It helped contribute to a strong transition of services to Rancocas. And that culminated when Rancocas opened a new emergency department during this period. Every emergency squad in the County participated in a parade leading to the grand opening. Ninety-five percent of the Zurbrugg emergency department and inpatient volume came to Rancocas after that.
So while it is crucial to have a crisis plan in place for the inevitable, how you act as a good corporate citizen over time can do wonders to soften the blow of any crisis you face along the way. It’s a work in progress everyday. And, it is crucial that marketing have a front row seat at the executive table in order to accomplish a strategic agenda such as the one described.
“The Aging Experience brings the creativity to marketing that is so necessary in healthcare today. They connect healthcare to its customers better than any marketing director or consultant I have ever met. They bring solutions to the table and helped us open our imagination to see outside the box.”
Joe Flamini, VP of Administration/Chief Operating Officer at National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners (former VP, Rancocas Hospital)