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Solid Communications Roadmap Can Lead To Successful Merger

Considerations for communications during a hospital or health system transaction.

Nary a day passes without reading headlines announcing another merger, acquisition or newly formed partnership in healthcare. With new demands and changes impacting how healthcare is delivered and paid for, health system and hospital leaders are finding that going alone is not prudent. In fact, to remain viable and secure they need to partner.

The reasons to merge are clear — navigating the cost and quality divide, managing the economics of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, handling the abundant regulatory and legal threats, differentiating themselves in a crowded space, and increasing in size to have the necessary negotiating power with payers; however, the process is fraught with challenges.

And though the players may be different, and some may prefer to stay local or regional while others seek partners with national scope, the strategic and operational challenges that face governing board members and senior leaders are similar. And, there clearly are lessons that can be learned from those that have ventured down this path.

Strategic approach
To start, a clear roadmap is essential. From the very early strategic discussions to the final decision and formal announcement, leadership needs to have a clear plan — who is leading the discussion, what do they hope to accomplish, why they are pursuing this venture, where they will receive push back, when do they expect this to happen as well as predicting questions that will arise:

  • Why is the hospital or health system moving down this path?
  • What could happen if the proposed option is not pursued/successful?
  • What will the new organization look like moving forward?
  • How will each stakeholder be affected?
    • A repository of "story assets" to illustrate the benefits of the merger/acquisition from various points of view (e.g., staff, patients, donors, community).
    • Identification of spokespersons. Your internal experts as well as external supporters can provide perspective, expertise and stability during the process. The reputation equity they build will help balance leaks or negative coverage that may arise during the transaction.
    • Preparation for leaks and misinformation. A nimble team needs to be ready to move and react quickly. Materials such as key messages, “tough Question & Answer” documents and talking points should be part of the reactive portfolio. This should be partnered with ongoing monitoring of all communication channels to be able to respond quickly.
    • Ongoing communications that should be structured around key announcements, with room for "softer" outreach interspersed for maximum impact. Remember, your stakeholders want to be kept in the know, and without information, the rumor mill will run in full force.
    • Repetition of messages. Use multiple channels of communication given the multiple stakeholders/audiences.

Engage with key constituents and build trust through transparency
Actively engaging and effectively communicating with all stakeholders will build loyalty and create a positive echo chamber. Therefore, building support among key constituents — board, executive team, physicians, employees, patients, donors and the community — will garner mutual cooperation for the transaction, ease concerns, manage competitive threats, maintain a positive community image and guarantee a successful outcome.

Driving the vision forward while minding the store
Although there will be a great deal of energy and conversation occurring around the potential merger/acquisition, it is equally important to remind your stakeholders that your eye is still on the ball with regard to optimal patient care. At the end of the day, it is doing what is best for the patient — day in and day out — is at the core of your mission.

Navigate "deal breaker" issues
Be smart, thoughtful and expeditious in making decisions. It is critical to quickly determine who will be the new CEO, who will sit on the new board and who will comprise the new senior management team. It also is imperative for the new leadership to address a "soft" component of mergers such as organizational culture. What will the values, vision and beliefs of the new organization look like?

Essential mission alignment
Never underestimate the importance of mission alignment. It can seal or break the deal. What is the single most common reason for a merger not to come to fruition? Leaders often respond mission incompatibility. Therefore, before beginning the process, it is critical to consider whether the missions of the participating organizations align. Many deals have fallen apart due to discordance in mission.

Communications plan
During the course of identifying and establishing a new partnership, a comprehensive strategic communications plan is crucial in guiding appropriate messaging and tactics to contribute to optimal outcomes. Consider employing external communications counsel to serve as a neutral filter, bringing past experience with similar events and an objective third-party perspective to your efforts. Elements of your plan should include:

If planned and executed successfully, the ultimate outcome will be a new arrangement/relationship that will result in a stronger, more dynamic and robust organization that will lead to improved patient care while reducing operating costs. Importantly, it will be an organization with a strong and meaningful reputation, elevated in the communities that you serve.

A strategic communications executive for more than 30 years, Cathy Barry-Ipema has deep passion and expertise in guiding and supporting the communication needs of hospitals and health care systems. Before joining Edelman, Ms. Barry-Ipema was chief communications officer for The Joint Commission and was responsible for providing strategic counsel and direction regarding all corporate communications. Prior to that, she was director of public relations for Lutheran General Health System in Park Ridge, Ill.

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