April 10, 2020

How Health Systems Can Effectively Communicate During COVID-19

Here’s what we know so far. Health systems can lead their communities through COVID-19 with flexible planning, proactive community communication, implementing key team roles and more.

Americans are now looking to their local, trusted health systems for clear guidance and information. Our research in late March of 2020 has shown us that consumers are looking to health systems for more than just wellness tips. Consumers want COVID-19-related information such as safety practices, health guidelines and positive messaging and more. Providing relevant information and guidance is an integral part of how health systems can care for their communities during this pandemic.

Health systems are natural leaders in every community. Each one protects the health and wellbeing of the entire community they serve. The centralized voice of a local health system can rise above the noise and give community members up-to-date, important information from a trusted source. While some cities and counties across the U.S. have been hit with COVID-19 earlier than others, over time, every place and health system will be affected. Calm leaders with clear ideas and trusted voices are needed throughout this time.

Over the past month, we’ve learned what’s crucial for health systems to succeed through and beyond COVID-19. Here are the most critical factors that every health system should be focusing on now, regardless of if COVID-19 has hit full-force in their area yet or not.


Utilizing Key Team Members

Organizing your health system’s communications team is one of the first, and most important, tasks to accomplish as the crisis continues. Every person in your system has a strategic role — and it starts at the top.

The CEO, Chief Medical Officer and an individual who is the "voice for the community" are three critical positions that should be specifically highlighted as the pandemic continues. Your CEO can be a calm, confident and authoritative community figure. When community members see and hear the leader of your health system directly addressing them in an authoritative, but still approachable, tone, the seriousness of social distancing and other measures are reinforced. It’s also important to utilize your Chief Medical Officer to explain the science behind these and other decisions. Community members need to have the ‘whys’ answered. Why is social distancing effective? Why are or aren’t face masks relevant to different scenarios? When provided with background information from a medical professional with an organization that they trust, some community members will take the information more seriously. Along with communications leadership from the CEO and Chief Medical Officer, designating a ‘voice for the community’ is the next critical role. This individual may have a medical background or a communications background but regardless of previous roles, he or she has informal leadership within your organization and community. He or she also needs to have the time to be able to stay in close contact with the community. Whether it’s local radio or news segments, this one person can be seen as a trusted resource of information through the COVID-19 pandemic. With a positive attitude and factual information, they can continually reinforce the latest messages as circumstances change.

Continuing to build a key communications team includes working closely with outside communication partners. Working seamlessly together is critical to operating efficiently through this pandemic. All key partners should be merged with internal teams as much as possible to make sure every relevant mind is in the right (virtual) room.

Beyond communications needs, health systems need to repurpose and refocus key talent to solve common industry needs. Who in your organization can pivot to new tasks? Individuals with informal authority and high social capital within and outside of your organization can be intuitively reassigned to the most pressing needs as they change. Reorganizing key players in your health system helps to control communications during the pandemic and beyond.  


Controlling the Narrative

Health systems should begin to or continue to consistently communicate with their communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, no news is bad news. If organizations are not providing information, community members will assume there’s a reason your health system is not keeping them informed. They will be asking themselves what your organization is hiding. Being proactive to keep your community informed is one of the best ways to positively emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In marketing, we know that even the best messaging needs to be repeated. In order for a consumer to internalize a message, it needs to be repeated anywhere from six to fifteen times. Especially now, health systems cannot share information enough. While it might feel like your audience is being exhausted with your repetitive messaging, your audience needs to hear that information consistently in order to absorb it. With stress levels, hardships and anxieties increasing, your audience needs to hear the message even more often. And community members are looking to health systems for more information than just health and safety tips.

Educational and human-interest messaging are important during this time. Share not only health and safety information but also engaging, positive messaging when possible. It’s important for community members to see how you are caring for your employees and your community. Thank your employees. Thank essential workers. These messages are now expected by the general public. Show leadership by educating essential businesses about how they can protect employees and customers. Educating local businesses about how to operate safely reinforces your leadership and sharing this information helps community members see how your organization is doing everything it can to keep everyone safe and healthy.

Right now, there’s an overwhelming amount of information about COVID-19 that health systems should help the public digest. Distill national, state-wide, and local information into important, understandable sound bytes. Whether your organization is posting social media graphics, or your ‘voice for the community’ is explaining something on the nightly news, health systems should be sharing more information than just their own. If it’s factually accurate and necessary for the public, it should be repeated on your channels. Ramp up important messaging when your region is experiencing its surge in COVID-19 cases and continue to share information consistently even when cases are diminishing.


Flexibility & Future Proofing  

We’re living through unprecedented times and health systems are in uncharted waters. At this time, done is better than perfect. While perfect is ideal, health systems, even with key partnerships, no longer have the time or resources to perfect an idea or message. This is not an excuse to produce half-baked or inaccurate messages to the community. This merely illustrates that priorities must shift during this time and a good idea, instead of the best idea, is what’s needed. Being flexible to change previous processes helps streamline communications efforts. Our world has temporarily changed and so the way things have been done must temporarily change with it.

Once COVID-19 cases have peaked in your region and your organization has a little time, it’s important to start future proofing as soon as possible. Starting planning for the post-COVID-19 world, what economically needs to be considered? What messaging will be needed? What timeline is realistic? What will community members want to hear? The COVID-19 pandemic has taught the world that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What does your health system need to be thinking about now so it can continue to protect the health of the community in the near and further future?

Health systems are being looked at like never before to provide leadership to their communities. By effectively utilizing all of their communications team, proactively informing and engaging with the community, staying flexible, and planning for the future, health systems can emerge from this crisis as the natural community leaders that they are. While some cities and regions have already felt the catastrophic effects of COVID-19 and others are bracing for impact, what we all share is a desire to protect the health of our communities. Leading by example and proactively communicating is a necessary part of our duties, both as health systems and marketers, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

It cannot be said enough times. We are all in this together.







If you’d like to continue discussing these strategies, please contact Jerry Youngblutt at jerryy@b-y.net.

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Jerry Youngblutt

Jerry is an agency principal and head of the account service team. He is primarily responsible for strategic thinking and maintaining a high standard of client service excellence. He began his career as a concept artist for Epcot at Walt Disney World and still uses his keen eye and creative mind to help bolster the agency’s creative work. For 29 years, his strategic thinking and account supervision skills have helped countless clients strengthen and develop their brand image.

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