Cleveland Clinic takes a healthy approach

Cleveland Clinic has taken a variety of steps to create a more seamless and effective media relations strategy.

Cleveland Clinic has taken a variety of steps to create a more seamless and effective media relations strategy.

When surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic performed the first near-total face transplant in the US in December 2008, getting the word out was simple.

A media alert informed reporters that the procedure had been completed, was successful, and a news conference had been scheduled.

For the communications team, it wasn't the quantity of coverage – the Cleveland Clinic received 3,000 media calls when the procedure received initial approval in 2005 – that caused concern. Rather, it was how journalists would report on the ethics of a face transplant.

“Monitoring the news after [the] media alert, what a lot of reporters talked about was the ethical piece,” says Eileen Sheil, executive director of media and PR for the Clinic.

At the news conference, the eight doctors from the operating room, the scientist who conducted the research, and an ethicist who discussed the social and cosmetic concerns of a face transplant all spoke to the media.

The coverage, Sheil says, was tremendous.
 
In the spotlight

As one of the largest academic medical centers in the country, the Clinic is no stranger to high-profile medical stories.

In 2008, its stories included two visits from former President George W. Bush, new partnerships with Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault, a conflict-of-interest policy, one of its cardiologists named a possible contender for FDA commissioner, and many clinical studies and innovative surgeries.

The team of 20 PR pros field nearly 100 media calls every day, but choose not to work with any outside agencies because it has been able to handle all communications internally, Sheil says, who has worked for the Clinic since 2002.

A few years ago, the medical center had the reputation that “if you wanted something from the Clinic, you might get an answer four days later,” Sheil says. Yet, as the volume of media calls began to increase, an emphasis was placed on increasing the staff, its response, and individual specialties.

“We restructured to the strengths of the people on our team,” says Heather Phillips, assistant director of media relations, who works closely with Sheil and Erinne Dyer, assistant director of PR.

An internal reorganization placed staff into three teams – PR, broadcast, and print media – with individual staff members who focus on specialty areas like cancer, cardiology, and sports medicine.

“I saw things change immediately,” Sheil says. “Job satisfaction went up, productivity went up, [and] output went up. People were having fun.”

Today, the Clinic strives to be a go-to source for national media and it proactively reaches out with stories, including trend pieces that might focus on anything from the economy, wellness, or the new administration. For some stories, the team will pitch an exclusive to one reporter, depending on overall strategy.

When the Clinic approved the protocol for the December face transplant in 2005, the team turned to the local Cleveland Plain Dealer medical reporter for the story. He visited the Clinic, saw the lab, spoke with experts and physicians, and wrote a detail-driven story that the PR team provided to other reporters for background.

It's similar to what the PR staff does on a daily basis. During the face transplant procedure, PR team members sat in on the surgery.

“If we're going to share it with others, we need to see it... experience it,” Phillips says. “To do that, we need to be in some of those [procedures].”

But when it came to the formal announcement that the procedure had been performed, the clinic held a formal news conference, without offering any in-advance exclusives, Sheil says.

The Clinic took a similar approach when it decided to disclose its physicians' ties with industry as part of a new conflict-of-interest policy.

A number of physicians had been fired or stepped down in 2005 and 2006 for failing to disclose conflicts of interest, incidents that placed the Clinic at the center of that “conflict-of-interest” debate.

“There was this growing... tense feeling... among patients about doctors' relationships with industry,” Sheil says. “The Clinic believes strongly that relationships with industry are... great for patient care.”

But she found, when speaking with a New York Times reporter, that mainstream media did not understand this grey area of relationships between doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and device makers. While there was initial hesitation from some Clinic leaders, Sheil brought the reporter into a meeting with them so she could understand the conflict-of-interest process.
 
Focused messaging
As the media, broadcast, and PR teams have become more specialized since the reorganization two years ago, they have had more time and resources to focus on specific elements of communications.

The Clinic is recognized in the medical community worldwide, but it also employs 37,000 people in Ohio, making it the state's second largest employer and a major driver in the local economy and community.

The clinic took on an education role in a six-month tobacco effort in early 2007. It targeted residents of Ohio about the dangers of smoking after a indoor smoking ban was approved statewide in 2006.

“It was a public health opportunity with a community benefit,” Dyer says. She adds that the clinic is looking at launching more campaigns, as long as they continue to show the strength of the Clinic and its story.

“Our primary audience is patients, the general healthcare consumer,” Sheil says. “We're building awareness of medical technology and treatments, and telling compelling patient stories.”

Cleveland Clinic in the news 2008

February

The Cleveland Clinic and Google Health announce a pilot program for the medical center to be one of the first institutions to use the technology company's online medical record platform

July

US News & World Report ranks the Clinic's cardiac care number one in the US for the 14th year in a row

The academic medical center completes the first live kidney donation through the belly button

December

The Clinic reports that it will post its physicians' education, medical specializations, and relationships with industry online

Surgeons at the Clinic perform the first near-total face transplant in the US, with a successful outcome

*The title of this story in print appears as "A healthy approach"

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