Steve Campanini recalls his first dealings with Tenet Healthcare very well. First, it was his birthday. Second, the way in which he was summoned to the client company's headquarters, then in Santa Barbara, CA, was abrupt.
On November 5, 2002, Campanini, then an MD in Hill & Knowlton's LA and Irvine, CA, offices, got a call from his boss telling him to get to Santa Barbara immediately. "He said, 'Get up here, you can go back home later tonight,'" Campanini, who officially joined Tenet in 2003, recalls. "Literally, I never went back to my office."
To say Tenet, one of the largest operators of hospitals in the US, has endured something of a crisis over the past five years is a vast understatement. On October 28, 2002, an analyst from UBS wrote an industry-leading report that showed the company was reaping more than its fair share of certain reimbursements from Medicare, known as outlier payments.
That report caused a multi-year investigation of Tenet's business practices by the federal government. Within a week of the allegations, word came out of Northern California that physicians had performed unnecessary cardiac surgery at a Tenet hospital. "It was a perfect storm," Campanini recalls.
"The volume of the interest was overwhelming," says Harry Anderson, who served as SVP of corporate communications for Tenet until he retired at the end of 2007 (at which point the company reorganized its PR function and Campanini moved to Public Strategies to serve Tenet [PRWeek, October 15, 2007]). "We were a typical corporate communications department for a company not typically in the media spotlight."
Campanini's first task was to reestablish connection with the business media covering the company. Before the outlier scandal, he says, the press had been sold a story on the giant healthcare company that turned out to be wrong.
"The reporters viewed them as not having a trustworthy story," he notes. "There was a point where there weren't even calls to the company for comment. It took about a year or so before things started to turn with some media. We turned the corner after the second year."
As the business press' trust in Tenet was repaired, Campanini was finally able to begin to tell the story of a company recovering from the brink of collapse. The key, he says now, was never overselling the company, but consistently offering the reporters whatever facts he could provide.
"I think the most important thing about communications is to build and maintain credibility - and to be very transparent," says Trevor Fetter, president and CEO of Tenet since 2002. "Steve has had the benefit of not having to say to anyone, 'Trust me.' He's been able to say, 'Here are the facts.' We've let the facts lead the story. All along it has been a mission more to explain what's out there than to push a particular angle."
The company also needed to reach out to the Wall Street investment community, as well as physicians and other staffers. The IR side of the communications puzzle, Campanini says, went dark initially because the team didn't have a story to tell. While media relations remained a focus for him, Tenet also needed to restructure its communications function.
"Corporate communications had never been involved in communicating and message development for the hospital level because there wasn't a need," he adds. "But now that there was a complete integration of the issues, there had to be a full integration of the process."
In summer 2006, Tenet settled with the federal government for more than $900 million, and in the third quarter of 2007, the company, Campanini believes, turned a corner. It's a corner that's taken five years of crisis communications to get to, but Campanini has been there to see the journey through.
Public Strategies, managing director, media practice
March 2003-October 2007
Tenet Healthcare, senior director, media relations
October 1999-March 2003
Hill & Knowlton, VP, healthcare