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COVID Communications: 3 Leadership Messages to Get Right

Analysis  |  By Jim Molpus  
   April 22, 2020

Your crisis communications strategy has the basics, but this moment in healthcare demands being mindful of just how big the messages are right now.

COVID-19 has reinforced some classic crisis communications best practices about being transparent, while also adding new nuances giving the perception of healthcare workers performing heroic service on the front lines. The first step in developing a message is to understand the moment, says David Jarrard, President and CEO of Nashville-based Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, and author of Healthcare Mergers, Acquisitions, and Partnerships: An Insider's Guide to Communications by HealthLeaders.

"Acknowledge the high emotions of this moment," Jarrard says. "When you communicate, speak to the emotional toll on your community, reflect the deep gratitude everyone feels for the nurses and physicians on the front line."

Jarrard and his team have prepared a guide, "COVID-19 Communications: Best Practices and How to Prepare for What's Next" with guidance on how leaders might shape both internal and external messaging. Among the top strategies:

1. Project stability

"Your people are hungry for stability," Jarrard says. "The pandemic has fundamentally unsettled most every healthcare organization; it will not be the same on the other side of it."

The communications dilemma is that COVID-19 disrupts the normal flow, with seemingly a new plan or change coming every day. Even in that chaotic scenario, it's still possible to project stability, he says, even as organizations make difficult decisions in response to the very real economic impact of the pandemic on their revenue.

"If you can't give your colleagues a firm vision for the future today, give them a clear approach for how you will build that new picture of tomorrow. Structure and a path will be welcomed, even if many of your decisions today may be challenging."

Operationally, it's important for all communications across the system to have consistent timing and messaging from all leaders.

David Jarrard, President and CEO of Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock. (Photo courtesy of Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock.)

2. Pick the right messenger

Hospital teams must appreciate that the COVID-19 crisis calls for different messengers within the team. The public, for example, may be far more likely to trust an MD in a white coat or scrubs to deliver the message about patient care or the spread of the virus than an executive.

"The messenger is part of the message," Jarrard says. "In fact, your choice of messenger can be more important than the message itself."

CEOs should continue with messages on mission and the community, while HR leaders might continue to reinforce team engagement. Even board members play a key role in communicating with local business and government leadership.

3. Prepare for the rebound

The natural human reaction after the active pandemic fades will be to relax and recover. The challenge for healthcare leaders will be to pivot, at that moment, to the projected rush to process a backlog of elective volume.  

"Recognize in your communications that, even if the immediate threat of the COVID-19 surge passes, the hard work for you and your team is not over," Jarrard says. "There will be a surge of patients who have postponed procedures returning to your health system. How they are scheduled, served, billed, treated—their experience—matters a great deal to your stabilization and recovery."

Perception and experience will still be critical, he says. "This first wave of patients will be powerful communicators to your community."

“Your choice of messenger can be more important than the message itself.”

Jim Molpus is the director of the HealthLeaders Exchange.

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