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12 Ground Rules for Communicating During a Hospital Transaction

Three out of four healthcare organizations surveyed last year said they were considering a merger or acquisition, according to an infographic created by CompHealth. Although healthcare transactions are more prevalent, they are not always well received by physicians, nurses and the community. If a hospital wants to see its transaction come to fruition, it needs to develop a communication plan that engages and informs key stakeholders.

Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, a healthcare public affairs firm, has developed a blog series to help guide hospitals through the communication process and lead them to successful outcomes. Here is a summary of Jarrard's blog series, which covers 12 ground rules hospitals should follow to effectively communicate a merger or acquisition.

1. Commit to a campaign. While a hospital should write a news release to announce its transaction plans, the communication strategy cannot end there. According to Kristen Hayner, senior executive advisor at Jarrard, executives need to build a several-month plan to reinforce the transaction message. Branding the communication may be the best way to package the message. "Give the campaign a name and create a logo around it that is tacked to every piece of communication you send. A good tagline is a great way to sum up a message," said Ms. Hayner. Beyond branding, the following tactics could be included in the campaign.

• Talking points and clear action assignments for leaders.
• Direct mail pieces.
• Community forums.
• One-on-one meetings with elected officials.
• Talking points for physicians and caregivers.
• Weekly communications from the CEO to the employees.
• Presentation on the benefits of the transaction.
• Meetings with leaders of civic organizations.

2. Take a seat at the deal table. Utilize the deal team — lawyers, brokers, administrative leaders, financial leaders and communications experts — to tailor the communication campaign to the particulars of the transaction and the political needs of the community. According to Ms. Hayner, the deal team can help the communication be strategic yet specific. If the deal is visionary, share that information but do not forget to tell employees and patients how their lives will be affected. Where will they go for future treatment? Will an employee's vacation time be honored? The answers to these questions need to be answered so the response to a transaction is not "my care suffered" or "I was confused," according to Ms. Hayner.

3. Own your message. Make sure that your hospital is the first to announce and speak on the transaction. According to Anne Hancock Toomey, partner with Jarrard, the hospital should commit to being proactive with its messaging instead of reactive to rumors or other events. "Communicate more — and communicate more often — than expected.  And, when you don't know the answer, it is OK to say that. The act of communicating sends a positive and reassuring message in itself," said Ms. Toomey.

4. Get the "talk right" internally.
Personal stories from physicians and nurses are more effective than advertising campaigns, so Ms. Toomey recommends making internal communications a significant piece in an M&A campaign. "Creating advocates and addressing issues inside the organization is a key to success with your internal audiences," said Ms. Toomey. If the physicians and nurses are educated on the transaction, they may be more inclined to support the deal. However, if they do not support the deal, winning community favor may become a tremendous struggle. "Over the years we have seen countless hospitals try to communicate their greatness through an expensive ad campaign, only to be cut down at the knees by a nurse 'telling the real story' at a grocery story. The truth is, they have more credibility than an ad," said Ms. Toomey.

5. Be personal. Although social media and the internet are effective methods of communication, a hospital M&A communication plan should focus on personal interaction, according to Ms. Hayner. Employees are going to be concerned when they hear "sale," "merger" or "acquisition" so, personal communication is the best way to share the true vision of the M&A decision. Ms. Hayner recommends answering questions in person, one-on-one conversations and scheduling round-the-clock town halls or presentations.

6. Be transparent. In order to conduct a transparent communication campaign, the team needs to develop messages that answer employee and community questions with lay terms and next steps. Instead of saying "we will hire substantially all of the employees," use a transparent statement, such as "we're working hard to hire everyone, and will personally assist those whose skill sets don't match the positions available." "[Transparency] lets you be honest and lets employees plan — two key tenets that will make a world of difference," said Ms. Hayner. Another way to be transparent is to create a website dedicated to the merger where employees can submit questions and sign up for email updates.

7. Over communicate. The more a hospital communicates with its employees, physicians, patients and community, the higher the likelihood that they will hear the message and understand why the deal is important and in the best interest of the hospital. "Say it once, then say it again. And when you think you've said it too much, say it a couple more times," said Magi Curtis, senior advisor at Jarrard. It is important to keep in mind that everyone absorbs information differently. Utilize the campaign tactics to make sure that many methods of communication are addressed: email updates, town hall meetings, in person conversations and a web presence.

8. Don't dance to someone else's music. The most effective thing to do to control the transaction message is to stay focused and stick to the communication campaign plan — do not respond to stunts or statements made by competitors or opposition. "The best defense is a good offense," said Ms. Curtis.

9. Think like the opposition. In order to defend the transaction from opposition, the hospital needs to think like the opposition. Ms. Hayner recommends speaking with community members and keeping regular meetings with elected officials to get the scoop — what is the opposition saying? If there are people opposed to the merger, why are they opposed? The hospital will need this information to be proactive against negative messaging. "You may have been the media darling or the town favorite for generations, but don't take that position for granted. An event like a hospital sale is too disruptive to an emotional topic like people's healthcare to not be smart about it. Your opposition recognized that from the first time they heard about it. Don't retreat," said Ms. Hayner.

10. Be flexible. While the hospital should stick to its communication plan as much as possible, it should also utilize new opportunities to enhance the message and/or answer questions from opposition. Ms. Hayner recommends flexibility that stays within the lines of the original strategy.

11. Build a campaign communications team. According to Ms. Toomey, the hospital needs a designated team of communications leaders — internal and advisors — who are responsible for directing the messaging and communications strategy. The team should have a seat at the deal table as mentioned earlier so it may stay on top of the legal and financial issues relevant to the transaction. "The team is also the eyes and ears of the campaign, constantly seeking feedback from key audiences and using it to shape the communications approach going forward," said Ms. Toomey.

12. Approach communications jointly. The selling and buying hospital should approach the M&A communication plan jointly because they share a common goal. By working together, both hospitals will be on the same page and avoid potential disruptions. "If your organizations are not on the same page about how and when to communicate from pre-letter of intent through close, you will trip over each other, miss opportunities and create unnecessary vulnerabilities for the organization that only heightens anxiety. Plus, your key audiences need to see and experience a united front to feel comforted that there will be continuity and security after the close," said Ms. Toomey.

More Articles on Communication Strategy:

Critical Steps Hospitals Need to Take Post Merger
Hospital Management Tool: Communications Readiness Assessment
No More Excuses: Why You Must Include Social Media in Your Hospital's Marketing Strategy

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