How Sanford Health's comms leader changes the 'flyover country' perception

Thought leadership and highlighting innovation are crucial to the media strategy for Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford Health, helping change the perception that the upper Midwest is just "flyover country," its communications chief told Becker's.

Erika Batcheller, vice president of media relations and corporate communications at the 47-hospital system, sits at the table with C-suite leaders as part of Sanford Health's integrated marketing and communications team. She joined the $7.1 billion organization in 2020 after leading communications for behavioral health startup Face It Together. She has also worked in communications for Fleischmann-Hillard, the National Farmers Union and the White House and Senate.

Becker's did a Q&A with Ms. Batcheller about the health system's communications and marketing wins and the challenges of the job.

Q: What recent communications and marketing projects at Sanford Health are you most proud of?

Erika Batcheller: About 18 months ago, as we formalized a new strategic vision focused on our role as a leading rural healthcare system, we started building a formal thought leadership program to elevate our deep bench of experts and provide our unique perspective through the lens of rural healthcare delivery. A collaborative effort between our communications and policy teams, the program's goal is to build credibility and authority to enable Sanford Health to be the most effective advocates possible for our people, patients and communities.

As a large, integrated health system we have a tremendous array of assets and expertise to draw upon to ensure that we're part of the critical conversations underway to solve healthcare's most pressing problems. The thought leadership program's strategies focus on expert positioning including earned media and speaking platforms, thought leadership content and convening discussions among some of the industry's most exciting voices. These efforts have enabled us to shape the public discourse by sharing the stories of our providers and patients and by highlighting work in areas as varied as virtual care, augmented intelligence and clinician resilience.

In addition, last year our team launched a powerful integrated brand campaign — "Here for All. Here for Good." — designed to underscore Sanford Health's fundamental commitment to serving our people, our patients and residents and our communities. The campaign brings to life our strategic vision focused on becoming the nation's premier rural health system by addressing access, quality and sustainability challenges facing rural healthcare.

The driving principle behind the campaign is our core belief that every person, no matter where they live or who they are, deserves innovative, expert and accessible healthcare. The campaign includes traditional paid media, multi-channel storytelling and internal engagement tactics to highlight the vital role of our Sanford family and their commitment to advancing our mission every day.

Q: What are the top trends in hospital and health system communications nowadays?

EB: As difficult as it was to navigate the pandemic, it also accelerated important advancements in how we engage and communicate with our external audiences as well as our employees.

The pandemic required us to throw out the old playbook and work with speed and agility to meet the needs of our patients and communities, who were clamoring for timely and accurate information. We had to become better at public health messaging, which meant understanding how to communicate risk, sharing information with greater transparency and using the most credible messengers.

At Sanford Health, we adapted by reorganizing how our marketing and communications teams worked cross-functionally, fast-tracking a shift to a consumer-driven content strategy and prioritizing earned media. These changes have enabled us to communicate more nimbly, deliver more relevant content and information to our patients and strengthen trust with our stakeholders.

More broadly, the pandemic also helped underscore the strategic value of communications to our business. In a time of great uncertainty and disruption, leaders came to understand that communication is not just about distributing information — it's about helping organizations navigate crisis points, accelerate business transformation, drive strategy alignment and enhance culture and engagement. A positive outcome is that many strategic communicators now have a voice at the leadership table.

Q: What have been the most effective digital engagement strategies at Sanford Health?

EB: We've seen a meaningful increase in engagement as we've evolved to a consumer-led content strategy, which is focused on prioritizing content that patients want and need instead of pushing out sales-driven or promotional messages. Doing this well requires a lot of active listening on social platforms, understanding and interpreting search and audience data and being agile enough to produce relevant content in short order.

Sanford Health invested in the development of an owned media platform, Sanford Health News, which uses the tools of brand journalism and storytelling to not only educate our patients about health issues but drive awareness, build reputation and strengthen trust for the healthcare system. The newsroom is staffed with experienced local journalists who come with the right skill set for powerful storytelling but also establish credibility and trust with our audiences.

Q: What is unique about leading communications for a rural health system like Sanford Health?

EB: As a health system primarily serving rural communities in the upper Midwest, it's easy to be underestimated as part of so-called "flyover country." The common perception might be that rural systems are somehow lower-performing relative to others, but the reality here couldn't be more different.

We have incredible innovation going on in every corner of our health system and it's a privilege for our teams to lift up the work of our people to strengthen care, enhance access to services and drive solutions for some of our most important healthcare challenges. Because of the work we've done with thought leadership, reporters now look to us for our unique rural health perspective that previously wasn't always part of the national dialogue.

Q: What lessons did you bring from other industries you've worked in (politics, nonprofits, etc.) to healthcare?

EB: Earned media has been a significant value generator at every point in my career. As a team, we have a specific philosophy guiding how we approach this work that has contributed to its success. While some organizations and industries view media relationships as adversarial, we see it differently. Our focus is on cultivating strong, collaborative partnerships with journalists, which means having a deep understanding of their areas of interest, how they cover their beats and the particular issues of relevance in their communities.

We take the time to find meaningful patient and provider stories and supporting data to help bring their reporting to life. We also invest in ongoing media training, so our spokespeople are effective voices for journalists' stories. Our leaders have also prioritized engagement in earned media, which helps ensure we're timely and responsive. We want to be good partners and a go-to resource to help shape and inform their reporting.

Q: What are the biggest challenges — or misconceptions about the job — that health system communications and marketing leaders face today?

EB: The biggest challenge in my view is declining public trust in healthcare. This is partly due to the lingering effects of the pandemic, but also a consequence of polarization, inequalities and dynamic stakeholder environments. When trust is eroded, patients are less likely to get the care they need, leading to worse health outcomes for individuals and communities.

As communicators and marketers, we need to make sure we understand those audience segments with lower trust, offering the right messengers (which are often different), communicating transparently and providing respectful space for questions and dialogue.

Q: Where do you see hospital and health system communications going next?

EB: Sanford Health has been ahead of the curve in integrating the consumer marketing and communications functions and this has served the organization and our stakeholders well. Both of these areas bring distinct value to hospitals and health systems in their own right, but working together can be a powerful combination.

For example, in areas of growing convergence, such as content strategy, working together enables us to speak with a unified voice and provide balanced messaging across channels, whether that's digital ads, earned media or even employee communication. Moreover, because the lines between internal and external messages are increasingly blurry, the integration of these functions helps with consistency and amplification.

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