Internal comms key to fixing 'corrosive' VA culture

If confirmed to lead the VA, former P&G CEO Robert McDonald will have to focus on listening as much as leading, comms experts tell PRWeek.

President Barack Obama made an out-of-the-box choice for his nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs last week when he tapped former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald for the role.

Crisis and public affairs experts tell PRWeek that McDonald’s success or failure will depend on whether he can translate his problem-solving record from the private sector to the government-run healthcare system.

Erin Hazard, SVP, partner, and lead of FleishmanHillard’s military and veterans affairs group, says McDonald may be able to pull from his customer-service and operational background while managing a complex organization at P&G to benefit the federal agency.

"There’s a lot of listening that is going to need to happen," she says, adding that the VA will need to focus on internal communications as much as external.

If confirmed by the Senate, McDonald will step into one of the most highly scrutinized cabinet roles in the Obama administration. Former four-star US Army Gen. Eric Shinseki resigned from the position in late May.

The VA has been the subject of a flood of negative stories in recent months. They include reports of excessively long wait times for doctor visits, and bonuses for VA executives who oversaw troubled hospitals. One government report also found that the VA ignored whistleblowers’ warnings about issues within its hospital system.

Late last month, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Rob Nabors, sent by the White House to investigate the matter, said in a memo that the department has a "corrosive" culture and cited its communications failures with veterans and employees. 

Yet, while McDonald’s appointment has been praised in Beltway circles, it’s important that the VA gets the word out about McDonald’s track record across the country, where millions of veterans are still waiting for care, says Hazard.

"We tend to get caught up in our DC bubble," adds Hazard. "For the folks out there, they need to know there’s someone in this position working hard to help them, leading by example, listening, and understanding where the problems really are."

Even on basic levels, the VA has tried to show it is moving forward. Recent press releases posted to its website announced a secure scheduling system and disclosed healthcare-access data that will be updated twice a month. 

The VA has a "huge" mission, says Hazard, including its medical side and its other support services, so consistency in messaging is important. If confirmed, McDonald could benefit from being "true to what worked for him" in the private sector. Like before, he’d have a customer base, thousands of employees, and other stakeholders, and he would have to understand the priorities of each.

A number of communications experts who spoke with PRWeek before McDonald was tapped for the role say there are specific steps the agency can take to win back the trust of veterans and the public at large.

Initial damage was done to the VA’s reputation in the way the story broke, when the agency was caught flat-footed, says Ben LaBolt, founding partner at the Incite Agency. The press was running stories about the agency’s issues before its leadership seemed to know what was happening, resulting in it "scrambling to catch up," he says.

Reversing the department’s reputational issues will require a daily effort, says LaBolt, noting that the Obama Administration conducted daily briefings during the Healthcare.gov rollout fiasco. He adds that the VA could benefit from a similar tactic to help it reassure veterans and the public at large and emphasize accountability.

"The most important piece is to address the problems as quickly as possible," he says.

Ernest DelBuono, SVP and chair of the crisis practice at Levick, is a retired Coast Guard officer and has been a part of the VA system. He notes that over the long term, the VA will have to communicate to Congress and the White House about progress meeting the goals it has set.

"Once they start delivering on that, then they can begin to communicate not only what they are doing but what they have done," he explains.

McDonald’s appointment was a surprise to many because he hails from the CPG world, having run P&G from 2009 to 2013, a time when it achieved annual sales of over $84 billion and had more than 120,000 employees. While McDonald is an Army veteran and graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, others who have held the cabinet position did so after long military careers.

Nor is McDonald a healthcare executive. Early last month, Cleveland Clinic CEO Delos "Toby" Cosgrove withdrew his name from consideration from the post after the White House reportedly reached out to him about it.

One of the VA’s structural problems is that it is evaluated like a government program, not a private hospital, says ReviveHealth CEO Brandon Edwards, who contends that if a private facility had issues similar to those of the VA, "the government would be all over them."

He adds that, if confirmed, McDonald will also have to contend with optics that hold the VA to one standard despite some facilities performing better than others. Another major issue is that the VA system lacks resources.

However, Edwards explains, VA secretary is the rare government job that can be compared directly to a private-sector executive position.

"[VA secretary] is actually one of the very few governmental jobs directly analogous [to the private sector]," he says. "There are political elements to this job, but it’s a healthcare delivery job. Doing it well is what’s important."

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