Communicating change in a community is no easy task. Here's how it's done

Executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic Eileen Sheil lays out how a comms team should engage with and educate a community undergoing a challenging change.

Announcing a major change to healthcare services in a local community is not easy. The Cleveland Clinic has been involved in two such announcements. Residents feel strongly about their hospital and the role it plays as a safety net and asset to the community. For us, it was key to integrate communication across local organizations by including the local mayor, hospital foundation, hospital leaders, and key stakeholders.

Explain the reasons behind the change
The biggest challenge is to educate and gain support for why the change is needed. In this case, the city announced that it was transitioning from a full-service hospital experiencing declining use and struggling financials to a new, state-of-the-art outpatient facility with an emergency room to better meet the future needs of patients.

Healthcare is shifting from inpatient to outpatient care. Fewer procedures require lengthy hospital stays since technology is evolving and new, less-invasive therapeutic treatments are available for patients with chronic diseases and surgical procedures, for example. So, more and more hospitals across the country are struggling to make ends meet with empty patient rooms.

To begin the process of explanation, the mayor held a news conference to outline the challenges to the city-owned hospital and to introduce the proposed changes. We were greeted by a number of media and vocal community members, since the meetings were open to the public. This added a level of complexity that normally wouldn't have occurred with the media alone. Community advocates, bloggers, and others with opposing voices were present at all times.

Integration is crucial
In this case, integrated communication with the city and the foundation was crucial. All entities supported the decision, agreed on the messages, and worked with a great deal of collaboration. Collectively, we had to be consistent and reach audiences through non-traditional means, such as face-to-face meetings, open forums, advertising, and letters sent to individuals' homes. We even used a service that could push out a phone message to all residents and employees for key updates and engaged in social media conversations.

One local reporter was assigned to cover every single event, meeting, and forum that was held, which generated daily news coverage of the hospital. The communication team worked hard to review and evaluate each story and then hold in-person meetings with employees to discuss concerns. This meant workers could focus on taking care of patients and continue to deliver the highest quality care.

It's crucial to have a detailed plan that’s entirely flexible and can change as unexpected factors arise. Communication has to be in sync with other business decisions so no one is surprised and rumors can be dispelled quickly.

Precise, coordinated communication is such an important aspect of success when big change occurs. Gratefully, we have approximately 800 employees who will be offered new jobs within our health system. Good communication and hard work from all employees is what was important to retain them and assure that patient care and safety stayed the focus each and every day.

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

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