Protecting your own reputation during external collaborations

Quite often, nonprofit hospitals are approached by outside companies to take part in joint news releases, educational videos, case studies, satellite tours, or a number of other promotional activities that can be mutually beneficial.

Quite often, nonprofit hospitals are approached by outside companies to take part in joint news releases, educational videos, case studies, phone banks, satellite tours, or a number of other promotional activities that can be mutually beneficial. Collaboration at many levels occurs between hospitals and industry nationwide.

Activities that promote clinical-trial results or a joint venture that improves patient care go a long way toward educating patients about new therapies or treatments and should be appropriately communicated to the public.

Nonprofits, however, must be diligent in protecting themselves from appearances of impropriety or direct endorsements of another for-profit company and/or its products. Hospitals need to be mindful of rules related to their tax-exempt status and develop guidelines that minimize reputational and legal risk.  

Cleveland Clinic receives nearly 30 requests from outside companies per month and we have learned there are no easy rules on how to evaluate them. They require adjustments and compromise that protect both parties. Some companies want to promote their brand, drive sales, or disguise these initiatives as “educational.” Be sure to consider the communications goal, purpose, messages, and responses to tough questions that might arise. In addition, we require our physicians to disclose any relationship they have with that company in all communications materials.

To protect your organization, be sure you, rather than the representative from the company, are involved in developing the messages your spokesperson delivers.

There was a specific instance in which we learned that one of our physicians agreed to take part in a phone bank that was to air on a national TV station. As a pediatrician, he was asked to take incoming phone calls from parents whose children suffered from a particular condition and might require medication. The drug company offered to media-train our physician. We insisted that we were present and that he was only allowed to speak about the condition and not recommend any specific medication. It turned out he was specifically asked by the company to mention its drug each time he was on live television.

We work closely with our employees and marketing representatives from outside companies to educate them on our guidelines so we are able to take part in appropriate promotional activities with industry. It's important to partner with your legal office and determine what guidelines work best for your organization to promote collaboration between industry and hospitals and to protect your institution and employees from harm.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column focuses on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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