The cure for misinformation

As communication professionals, it's especially important to anticipate outside factors and the role they play to influence outcomes.

In October this year, we announced that we were going to reduce our 2014 budget by $330 million. Half of these cuts are related to the Affordable Care Act, while half are not. We first told our 43,000 employees in a meeting and by email. We then reached out to local media and stakeholders.

For years, work has been underway to reduce costs and duplication of services, drive efficiencies across our organization, and reduce unnecessary procedures and tests. In addition, we offered voluntary early retirement to 3,000 employees. Given that our costs are 60% labor, we also acknowledged that there may be a reduction in our workforce at some point. This situation is not unique to Cleveland Clinic and no hospital is immune.
 
Local media focused on the cost cuts and the fact that all local hospitals were facing similar challenges. National media focused on how the Cleveland Clinic, held up as a model of healthcare, was affected by “Obamacare.” Some reporters took the time to fully understand the situation, while others were quick to blame the Affordable Care Act.
 
In a heartbeat, the clear messages we were delivering were getting translated into a story that was not entirely factual. The aforementioned early-retirement option we offered, for example, was quickly reported as layoffs. This caused more alarm and chaos, as employees were concerned and many of our patients mistakenly thought we were not going to accept them under the new law.
 
Managing a consistent message during such a transformational time in healthcare was especially difficult since the topic is complex and emotions run high. More than 50 media calls came to us in less than 24 hours. Each call required we engage in a careful conversation to attempt to keep the facts clear and specific. Although we had strong and consistent key messages, some of the reporting was not entirely accurate. The management of this story evolved daily and took many turns.
 
Our PR challenge was heavily influenced by reporting mistakes that were difficult to correct. We spent a great deal of time trying to clarify misinformation with every conceivable audience we touch – employees, media, editors, politicians, stakeholders, the public, and our patients. We posted the facts on our website and spent extra time with key print and online reporters to help them understand the situation and write more fully about it.
 
As communication professionals, it's especially important to anticipate outside factors and the role they play to influence outcomes. Develop a plan and strategy to correct misinformation swiftly. It's critical to any institution seeking to establish and build credibility, trust, and transparency with employees and customers.  

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus 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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