Communicating Complex Issues in Healthcare by Marrying Internal and External Strategies

by Maddie Clair, Vice President

Since 2020, many hospitals and healthcare organizations have been singularly focused on their communications to the community. These organizations have done an incredible job messaging the ever-evolving guidelines associated with COVID-19, from testing and vaccinations to visitor policies and staffing – oftentimes delaying service line updates and other pertinent changes to focus on pandemic messaging.

Now, hospitals and health systems are grappling with financial challenges, clinician burnout, and a national clinical labor shortage. In many cases, these challenges mean healthcare organizations must adapt service offerings, organizational structures, or overall operational policies.

When announcing these transitions, healthcare communicators must be prepared with a plan that focuses on not only community communications, but also on internal messaging, ensuring employees feel valued and included in the process. Below are a few tips to keep in mind when creating an effective communications plan to navigate changes within a healthcare organization:

I. As a major employer in their community, public perception of a hospital or healthcare organization is often swayed by internal sentiment.

Improving internal sentiment and spreading positivity throughout a facility or organization is critical for not only staff recruitment and retention, but also for patient outcomes and overall public perception. As healthcare organizations seek to communicate complex issues or announcements to their community, they should first look towards their internal communications and devise a forward-looking campaign crafted to ensure messages are resonating with staff and positively shifting internal sentiment.

This, coupled with a robust external message plan, will ensure healthcare organizations can reach their organizational goals with both their staff and community behind them.

II. Internal and external communications should be audience-specific while following a consistent narrative.

A comprehensive communications plan should begin with building a strategic narrative that guides all communications regardless of audience. This narrative includes critical points of concern, immediate next steps all audiences should be educated on, and recommended tone and tenor.

Once an overarching narrative is solidified, communicators should work to ensure individual messages are adapted to resonate with their specific audience-type. Internal and external messages will differ in their delivery to ensure they effectively resonate with each group, while the guiding principles of messaging remain the same.

This process guarantees consistency of message while ensuring communications are authentic for both internal and external audiences.

III. Build trust amongst staff through transparent messaging and feedback protocol.

Building trust with staff is paramount to creating and maintaining a positive culture. In building a comprehensive communications plan, healthcare organizations should ensure staff feel they are being brought into the fold early in the process to earn their confidence in the organization’s plans, while still ensuring consistency between internal and external messages.

As internal and external communications campaigns are deployed, understanding how messages are resonating with staff helps leaders better understand how they will be received by external groups. Ensure a feedback protocol is in place where department managers can report frontline staff concerns and comments to communications leaders, who will then respond and adjust messaging appropriately.

Complex and difficult decisions, changes, and updates are commonplace as healthcare organizations evolve to meet the everchanging needs of today’s world. A comprehensive plan that encompasses strategies for internal and external audiences will help to mitigate issues both within the organization and the community, thus reaching organizational goals and improving patient care. 

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