How Mayo Clinic reinvented its communications with storytelling at the core

The Minnesota-based healthcare organization knocked down silos as it reimagined its communications structure with its own "news engine."

ROCHESTER, MN: Mayo Clinic is not just a pioneer in medical research and care. It is also leading the charge to make healthcare communications less confusing and bureaucratic and more collaborative.

Revamping its comms unit over the past two years, the hospital network has merged its five communications divisions across its three hospital locations into a single integrated group with teams working together across the country.

"Communications the way we did it in 1980 or 1990 is not good enough for having a global brand in a place like Rochester, Minnesota," said Amy Davis, head of communications and public affairs at Mayo Clinic.

The hospital works with PadillaCRT. Agency EVP Matt Kucharski, who has been working with Mayo since 2007, noted the sheer size of Mayo’s reach.

"If this department were to break off and form its own agency, it would be a top five healthcare agency," he explained. "The kind of work [PadillaCRT] does with Mayo Clinic is not traditionally what you hire an agency to do, because they do it all themselves and do it really well."

Unifying the communications division allowed Mayo Clinic to streamline most of its processes and, in turn, publish more content, using its "news engine" and social media channels to reach people.

The "news engine," as Davis called it, is a single team that works much like an actual newsroom. Karl Oestreich, director of public affairs, said the group is fed story and news ideas from each branch of the communications division. The hospital runs its own news center portal, Mayo Clinic News Network, along with a radio show, video content, and partnerships with other outlets such as Esquire.

These channels are part of the organization’s strategy of trying to meet people where they are, particularly millennials, and it has also altered its media relations strategy to reach this important demographic.

"The one thing we did was look at our top 50 media list to make sure it's not just traditional media," Oestreich said. "Five years ago, we probably wouldn’t have worked with BuzzFeed, Vice, or The Huffington Post, and we work with all those regularly. We have to go where they’re getting their news and information, and they’re not getting it from the traditional channels any longer."

The tricky part of reaching a young audience is that its members don’t think about healthcare much, Davis said, because many problems don’t appear until later in life. Therefore, the restructured comms team releases general content about issues like skin health, allergy season, or dental care.

"We want people, before they ever need us, to be thinking highly of us or to have some relevancy with us," she said.

Simplifying a complex environment
One reason why many people are overwhelmed by the healthcare system is its sheer complexity. With that in mind, much of the team’s job is simplifying that complicated world of healthcare, regulation, insurance, and medical research.

Davis has worked to make sure everyone in her communications division is using the same basic structure for developing messages to eliminate some of that confusion and so there is uniformity across the department.

"We live in a world of complex data and terminology and jargon," Davis said. "Our job often is to translate that and make it understandable on a very basic level. I always talk about the farmer in Oklahoma; that’s who we’re after. If we can make the farmer in Oklahoma care, or do something, or change a habit, that’s success."

Mayo Clinic isn’t afraid to take risks and try things on social media, as well. In March, it livestreamed a colonoscopy on Periscope. Lee Aase, director of social media at Mayo, both came up with the idea and offered himself up for the live procedure.

"It was Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and he wanted to do something that was out of the box," Oestreich said. "It was a great example of traditional media and social media working together well."

The livestream was picked up by news outlets nationwide and even broadcast for a short time in Times Square in New York City.

The hospital also encourages all employees to share Mayo Clinic stories on their personal social channels, though staffers obtain patient consent before sharing anything. As Davis said, everything it does starts with its staff.

"We have always seen social media as an extension of word of mouth." Davis said. "It is interesting the other corporations that will contact us to say, ‘How can you let your employees do this?’ Our employees create our brand, every day with how they interact with patients. Why would we not trust them to do that on social media."

Telling good stories
The driving force behind the news center and social media is the wealth of stories Mayo Clinic has to tell. The hospital network sees 1.3 million patients each year, and many ask for their stories to be shared.

Having too many stories to tell is a good problem to have, so Mayo’s communications team has to pick the ones with the biggest potential impact.

"At its core, it’s just old fashioned, good storytelling," Davis said. "What’s a story that shows you make a difference? What’s something that [the patient] has gone through where there’s an emotional connection? What’s something that can inspire other people?"

The hospital’s most shared story was a video that went viral in 2015. A patient, who was part of a research study for a bionic eye implant, saw his wife for the first time in a decade. The video had all of the things Davis looks for in a good story: raw emotion, an inspiring story, and the hospital making a difference in this man’s life.

It has more than 1.6 million views on YouTube. Davis said the patient is still doing interviews promoting the hospital, the research, and his treatment because of the experience and connection he has with Mayo Clinic.

"One thing in healthcare that’s easier for us than other industries is you connect emotionally with people; you make a difference in their lives," Davis said. "Maybe you couldn't cure them and maybe you couldn’t save them, but you held their grandmother’s hand or you comforted them. You have an emotional impact. It creates a very different experience and bond between and organization and a community than in other industries."

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