Timely press relations lifts Scripps Health's image

Nonprofit hospital network Scripps Health enjoys a stellar reputation in California communities, but its focus on around-the-clock media relations makes it a go-to source for reporters.

Nonprofit hospital network Scripps Health enjoys a stellar reputation in California communities, but its focus on around-the-clock media relations makes it a go-to source for reporters.

Scripps Health has the PR blessing of being a trusted community name with a long history of providing top-notch care.

"They have an excellent reputation," says local NBC journalist Peggy Pico of the nonprofit network, which includes four acute-care hospitals in San Diego. "I typically pull from them when I want an expert who is accessible and knowledgeable, and [whom] people are able to respect."

The network has benefited from a solid image, including a 2003 nod from US News & World Report naming Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla as a top-50 facility for heart care and sister facility Scripps Mercy as tops in geriatric medicine and rheumatology.

But despite those accolades, the organization has faced a barrage of tricky communications issues this year, including an ongoing battle over the unionization of nurses. It also faces an upcoming communications challenge with the possible closing of a University of California hospital, which could potentially burden Scripps with more patients than it's able to handle.

It also regularly takes on industry issues, constantly promotes its doctors and services (the system encompasses more than 2,600 doctors, has more than 10,000 employees, and runs 11 clinics), and is in the middle of a campaign to raise the profile of its CEO. Add to that the daily potential for drama that being a hospital carries with it, and you have a very demanding set of communications challenges.

"We're a 24/7 organization," says corporate PR director Don Stanziano. "We're available after hours and weekends. With hospitals, anything can happen at any moment, and we have to be responsive."

Staying open with media

To accommodate that reality, the organization has both a centralized, corporate PR division, as well as branch personnel at each facility, with about 30 people in total. The nine staff members who handle media inquiries work on an on-call rotation so that someone is always available. That kind of effort has won the team the media's appreciation.

"These guys are definitely top-notch and completely media savvy," says Pico. "I'm used to PR pros who understand our deadlines, and they are the only people in town who, anytime I call, I get what I need. I'll always call them first."

Kyle Roderick, a freelance integrative health and medicine writer who works with Scripps on stories for outlets including Body & Soul and Destination Hyatt, seconds that opinion.

"They just make it easy," she says. "All of the people at Scripps are really well informed, so if there is some clinical research trial or a new book coming out from one of the doctors, they are so knowledgeable. They have the information in two minutes. They save time for me because they are so prepared."

Stanziano says that kind of proactive relationship with the press is a corporate philosophy that starts at the top.

"We have a CEO who will tell you that he believes one of the fundamentals of being a good organization is transparent communications," he says. "We all know in the PR field that you don't want to do or say anything that you don't want printed on the front page of a newspaper, but we give [the press] as much information as we can."

While keeping reporters like Pico and Roderick happy is a priority, Stanziano says that, during a crisis or media frenzy, the challenge is keeping long-term strategic plans moving forward while still dealing with the current situation. "There are strategic goals we want to accomplish from a communications standpoint, but at the same time, we can get distracted by the reactive," he says.

One of those long-term strategies is raising the profile of its top executive, Chris Van Gorder, and earning him more national recognition. "He has a very compelling story to tell," says Jean Hitchcock, VP of marketing and communications. Stanziano adds, "He's very dynamic, very transparent, and a great interview. And he's not afraid to take a position and articulate it. He's sometimes at odds with his peers, and with the industry in general, and we've found that our trade media tend to appreciate his perspective."

Hitchcock highlights Van Gorder's willingness to go out on a limb with a message with a recent "campaign to increase the amount of funding we were getting from Medicare." Feeling that Medicare didn't fund San Diego as well as other cities, the team put out a "flurry of government relations activities" to change that. "Rarely [does] a CEO stick his neck out," says Hitchcock. "And he did a great job."

Another ongoing challenge for the corporate team is the continued push from the California Nurses Association to unionize workers at Scripps.

"Once a union has targeted you, they are at great liberty to put out misinformation, to really attack you," says Hitchcock. "It's a lot of proactive and reactive internal communications."

One of the network's facilities has had to cope with two one-day strikes, "which, as you might imagine, attracts a lot of media attention," says Stanziano.

To tell its side of the story to employees, the team has reached out to patients, doctors, and nurses with a variety of communications, from forums to fliers. "It really is an all-inclusive effort," says Hitchcock.

Pico says that the real professionalism of Scripps' PR team is evident with these touchier stories. She gives the example of a story she did, covering a report on heart attacks. "They were on it," she says of the PR team, even though it was a "story that wasn't 100% positive" for Scripps. The team set up an interview for her with a doctor to discuss the report, which Pico says helped create a balanced story.

Friendly competition

For the PR staff based in each of the network's hospitals, the focus is a little different. These staff members are charged with promoting their individual facilities and helping to drive business by letting the community know about services and doctors.

"We are mainly proactive here," says Lisa Ohmstede, PR manager at Scripps Memorial Hospital. Her facility has 12 "specialty centers" that focus on areas like pain management and cancer. "I'm charged with getting the word out about those centers," she says. "It's a big load to carry."

Ohmstede adds that her facility is also a trauma center, which means that there are times when she has to deal with breaking news. For example, last year a school bus crashed nearby, and students were brought to the hospital for care. In those instances, she calls on the corporate headquarters to supply extra help. "Corporate gives us a lot of backup if there is a crisis," she says.

But if corporate gives backup, then the other Scripps facilities sometimes give a fight. Because the four hospitals serve the same town, they often go head to head for media coverage.

"We are sort of in competition with each other," says Johnny Hagerman, director of marketing and communications for Scripps Clinic and Scripps Green Hospital. "We're constantly, in a fun way, competing with each other. But we're good at sharing the wealth."

Hitchcock says that while her communications staff is "as competitive as all get out," at the end of the day, they function well as a team.

"We've been able to put together a group of highly skilled professionals who have a very good time doing their jobs," she says. "The work can be onerous at times, but we get through it with a good sense of humor. They've been a good support group for each other and are always willing to pitch in."

PR contacts

VP of marketing and communications Jean Hitchcock

Director of corporate PR Don Stanziano


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