5 Communication Strategies for Hospital CEOs

Hospital CEOs are experiencing new hurdles in their day-to-day work, brought on by the Affordable Care Act, a shaky economy and a rapidly evolving healthcare industry. While skill sets and workdays might change, one thing will not: hospital CEOs still need to be the visionaries and — more importantly — communicate those ideas.

"There is so much change occurring in the healthcare industry right now, and it is more critical than ever that CEOs use clear and effective communication. Their message must anchor the hospital," says Marion Crawford, president of Crawford Strategy, based in Greenville, S.C.

Concise and open communication will foster cohesion in the hospital and strengthen its ties to the community. Ms. Crawford shares five communication strategies for hospital CEOs, regardless of their organization's location or bed count.

1. Communicate the vision to your inner circle. The CEO is always the "keeper of the vision," but the vision must be shared and understood for the CEO to be effective. The first step in sharing the vision is developing it among a core group of lieutenants — the key leaders within the hospital. These individuals can offer feedback and help refine the vision, but most importantly, they will be the primary drivers of its dissemination.

If the vision is dispensed in a dictatorial fashion as opposed to collaboratively, it is less likely to be adopted. "Before the CEO can engage the broader community effectively, the critical inner circle must buy in to the message completely," says Ms. Crawford. "Engage them, and gather their support, and if they buy in to what you're saying, your ideas will begin to permeate the system," says Ms. Crawford.

2. Use your "captive ambassador base." Do not overlook opportunities to communicate messages broadly to all employees. "Keeping broad employee communication at the forefront of message delivery is key," says Ms. Crawford. Hospitals and health systems are typically big employers within their respective communities. Therefore, having engaged, informed employees will translate into a healthier relationship with the community.

"People work to get paid, but they also want to be part of something special," she says. And if the CEO can articulate the organization’s objectives and make them feel vested in journey, they will become ambassadors both in the workplace and in the community.

3. Invest in a strong communication team. Whether through outside or inside resources (or both), hospitals should make the necessary investment in a strong communications team – one that has creative talent, solid writing capabilities and, ideally, experience in the healthcare industry. Integrate that expertise and use it.

Ms. Crawford has multiple hospital clients, and she says that the most important feature of a strong team relationship is non-stop communication. "We talk daily, probably five times a day, and also meet in person regularly. That allows us to understand their nuances or when there is a slight change in tenor," says Ms. Crawford.

A communication team and hospital that are loosely-connected can run into problems. "Let's say a hospital is entering a transaction, and gives the communication team information about it," says Ms. Crawford. "Important questions often need to be answered and understood in order for that message to be communicated clearly." This is where nuances come into play — a communication team may recognize certain risks or opportunities a hospital faces if they're in frequent contact. "By talking regularly, I can consider every angle of a development or announcement and refine the message appropriately," says Ms. Crawford.

4. Listen, listen, listen. Whether it's through town hall meetings, online comments, Intranet feedback or conversations with physicians, CEOs need to sharpen their listening skills and ensure that feedback is not going unnoticed. "These pieces of feedback and communication from stakeholders can help the CEO refine its operations, both on a small and large scale," says Ms. Crawford. Everyone knows that the role of hospitals has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. They’ve shifted from being inpatient facilities tending to the sick, to flagships of health that hold themselves accountable in their efforts to improve community health. Listening is a keep part of that accountability.

CEOs should do more than accept feedback — they should actively seek it. "At the end of town hall meetings, the CEO for one of our hospital clients welcomes everyone to email him. He tells them he welcomes their input, and with their input and suggestions, the hospital will be able to provide better care. They listen to that," says Ms. Crawford. Assertively seeking input will help hospital CEOs stay on top of their community's needs and priorities.

5. Embrace all available communication tools in the marketplace. There are a lot of tools these days — traditional media, social media, physician events, town hall meetings, electronic commercials and much more. "Sometimes, in-person communication is not always possible, and making video a great way to communicate a message," says Ms. Crawford. This lets people put a face to the hospital, observe body language and hear a voice — whether the video is on YouTube or the hospital's Intranet for employees. Blogs are also an easy way for CEOs to maintain transparency and open communication with both employees and the community while communicating the hospital's message.

This even relates to smaller aspects of a hospital, such as the branding or logos on handouts for education sessions. "Have a hospital spokesperson deliver a short introduction about the organization and where it's headed at the beginning of the class," says Ms. Crawford. "That message has to be everywhere. It seems so basic and often repetitive, but these small steps add up to the whole."

Learn more about Crawford Strategy.

Related Articles on Hospital Communications:

Tools of Engagement: Improving Workplace Quality
5 Tips to Improve a Hospital's Brand
10 Secrets of Top Hospital Marketers

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