Continuum team fosters expertise to tout hospitals

Continuum Health Partners comprises five NY hospitals that face fierce area competition. But its corporate comms team proactively works to attract media and consumer attention

Continuum Health Partners comprises five NY hospitals that face fierce area competition. But its corporate comms team proactively works to attract media and consumer attention

Continuum Health Partners is a network of five New York area hospitals - Beth Israel, St. Luke's Hospital, Roosevelt Hospital Center (the two merged into St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in 1979, but are still considered separate entities), Long Island College Hospital, and the New York Eye & Ear Infirmary - that serve more than 100,000 inpatients and 1 million outpatients each year. Formed in 1997 with two facilities, the company has made a fierce press push to build its name as it expands its reach - no easy task with such well-known competitors as Mount Sinai Hospital and New York-Presbyterian.

"In New York, there are certain academic medical centers that have for years been recognized as leaders in their field," says Sean Cassidy of the challenges faced by the relative newcomer. Cassidy is president and COO of Dan Klores Communications (DKC), which works with Continuum.

"New York is definitely very competitive for our stories," adds Jim Mandler, corporate director of public affairs at Continuum. "On a regional level, there is tremendous competition because there are not [many] outlets to go to for our stories."

Building its profile

The corporate communications department is on the forefront of the effort to build and maintain Continuum's reputation. It constantly is seeking ways to raise the organization's profile in one of the nation's most saturated medical markets, both to build business and to brand the hospitals, individually and as a network.

"The goal for the department is to do the best job we can to publicize the superb physicians and excellent clinical facilities we have at all of our hospitals," says Kathy McGovern, corporate VP for public affairs and marketing. "Public affairs is seen as an important vehicle for driving business."

When Continuum was formed, the administrative offices were moved to a central location, and the decision was made to have a single communications office for all of the hospitals as a way to avoid competition among the facilities. Today that office has a five-person staff, and one person works remotely at Long Island College Hospital for geographic reasons.

McGovern reports directly to CEO Stanley Brezenoff and monthly to the board of directors. She says that senior executives are "very appreciative of the effort of the public affairs staff and enjoy a bit of good publicity as much as the rest of us."

John Campi, VP for promotion and community affairs at the New York Daily News, says that one of the strengths of the team is its deep understanding of the hospitals' patients. The newspaper has worked with the Continuum team for five years on a prostate cancer screening initiative.

"What's most important about New York is knowing the community," Campi says. "New York cannot be compared to anywhere else in the world because of the ethnicity factor. There are so many ethnic groups that are markets unto themselves, and [the Continuum team] understands the communities that they serve."

The Continuum staff divides itself by disease or medical practice groups. For example, one staffer might handle all neurosurgery stories across hospitals, allowing him or her to gain a deeper understanding of the procedures and diseases to better do media outreach.

"This way the staff get to really be experts in clinical things," says McGovern. "We kid around that after you cover cancer for awhile, you know enough that you can diagnose it."

To cultivate this expertise and keep on top of any stories that might be media-worthy, communications staffers regularly meet with doctors in their practice areas. This allows them to both pinpoint those practitioners who might be of interest to the media and gain the trust of doctors. That kind of interaction is vital to the team "because a lot of the time doctors don't even think about bringing interesting cases to our attention," says McGovern. "That's one of the biggest challenges."

When a story or incident arises that is outside of a specific person's expertise, Mandler, who began his hospital communications career in 1986 at Beth Israel, will step in to handle the situation. For example, last year the network faced a media deluge when one of its hospitals handled a case of bubonic plague.

"We didn't have anyone on staff who was set up with bubonic plague," laughs McGovern.

Continuum's team is also on the lookout for physicians who are good in front of the camera, and it works with them on an individual basis to craft talking points and media strategy.

"When we identify a physician who we really feel has the potential to be somebody who the media can turn to, and somebody we can proactively pitch, we will run them through a half-day media training session," explains Mandler.

When the team isn't looking for pitch-worthy stories and people within its own hospitals, it is looking for ways to attach itself to current events. For example, during the Terri Schiavo media frenzy, the Continuum team successfully pitched a palliative care expert to speak on the issue. The team also had success placing experts recently to help explain Peter Jennings' cancer and the late Pope John Paul II's illness.

"That really demonstrates what I'd say is 65% to 70% of our media work, which is very proactive," says Mandler. "We're a very popular resource for the media on reactive stuff."

Other PR efforts

Continuum also works with a number of outside PR agencies. The bulk of the work goes to DKC, which has worked with the company for a number of years. Rubenstein Associates handles Continuum's cancer business. Smaller firms are also brought in for project work as needed.

"We have a PR firm that is handling public relations for the spine institute at Beth Israel," says Mandler. "The feeling was they really had a great story to tell, and they needed some special attention, and we felt that it was a good investment for them to hire an outside PR firm."

Cassidy says that one of Continuum's hallmarks with PR is a strong commitment to using it as a tool to further concrete business goals. He gives the example of the team's effort to reposition Roosevelt Hospital as a "world neurosurgical leader."

"For years it was a community-based hospital, and now [it is] trying to draw from outside the neighborhood," he says. "They have been very effective at working with us to create large-scale media campaigns around cutting-edge procedures being undertaken at the hospital," as a means of drawing wider attention to it.

McGovern adds that another challenge for the team is dealing with local events, such as shootings or other emergency situations, that attract media attention. St. Luke's is a level-one trauma center with a busy emergency room, "so we understand we are going to have some challenges there," she says.

The team is also charged with internal communication for the network's 16,000 employees, making it the fifth largest private employer in New York.

Currently, their biggest project in this area is helping the hospital switch to an automated physicians ordering system, which McGovern says takes "an enormous effort from our communications team."

Despite what the team admits is a constantly changing and challenging workload, McGovern says that working in hospital PR has its own rewards.

"I'd say the most important thing that makes our department achieve its success is a real sense of collegiality and deep respect for the administration and for the physicians we are representing," she says. "That's the joy of working in hospital public affairs - you are really working on stories that can have an impact on people."

Mandler agrees, and says, "Without question, that is the universal feeling on my staff. You get caught up emotionally. You feel like you are doing something that helps people and that is exciting."

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PR contacts

Corporate VP for public affairs and marketing Kathy McGovern

Corporate director of public affairs Jim Mandler

Director of public affairs (Long Island College Hospital) Zipporah Dvash

Assistant public affairs directors Michelle Pipia-Stiles and Bruce Lander

Senior media coordinator Elizabeth Dowling

Media coordinator Peter Schrager

PR agencies Dan Klores Communications, Rubenstein Associates

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