How Hospitals Can Build Their Brands in a Time of Disruption 

Hospital systems are a critical juncture for their communications. Even as they recover from the acute stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital systems now face an onslaught of new financial pressures, consolidation across systems, digital transformation and workforce burnout and shortages. Solidifying a hospital brand during these turbulent times requires a clear narrative, consistent storytelling and a boldness to work with partners in new ways.  

Drawing on APCO’s experience serving hospital systems, health care providers and organizations from across the health sector, here are some key principles that communicators can follow to navigate turbulent times. 

Champion staff and partners

The collection of medical professionals, academic researchers, disruptive innovators and scientific partners operating in the same network creates a truly unique opportunity to improve health and advance health equity. A hospital system’s successes—whether they be in medical or clinical research—are never the product of one moment or one individual. Placing the many diverse faces behind that story at the forefront connects the human element to the headline, supporting compelling stories of effort, achievement and impact. 

As hospital systems and providers face the prospect of staffing shortages, corporate storytelling that champions a frontline workforce drives staff satisfaction, pride, and ultimately retention. All these elements will play an important role in preserving a system’s ability to retain talent deliver high-quality care.  

Embrace your higher cause

Even as distrust in science grows within the United States, doctors, nurses and their employers remain among the most trusted institutions in the United States. This puts health care systems in a unique position to educate and deliver change in a country in need of progress. Progress is created through any number of initiatives s such as championing innovative research, developing new care models like remote patient monitoring or tackling one of health care’s biggest challenges like Alzheimer’s, diabetes or health inequities.  

Whether a hospital system is known around the world like Mayo Clinic or Mass General Brigham, or a local, rural system, hospital communicators should focus on showing how their unique constellation of strengths is serving their ultimate goal of supporting patients and their local communities. Creating a consistent, singular narrative with proof points that demonstrate progress in your efforts creates brand clarity and generates stories for the brand over the long term.  

Think locally, speak globally

Health care systems are the beating heart of the communities they serve. Building relationships within local communities—whether local, state or national—is an essential starting point. Yet, as the pandemic’s impact becomes our new normal, the potential growth for medical tourism presents a large financial growth opportunity. Hospital systems that can capitalize on this trend will be those who can also understand the local on-the-ground communities and media environments. These systems will have the advantage of translating the emerging research, world-class care in ways that engage the many diverse audiences in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. 

Focus on impact and long-term value

Showing not telling is a key component of effective storytelling. Data may validate medical findings, but rarely drives journalists or their audiences’ attentions. In addition to elevating the scientific efforts hospitals support, hospitals can also demonstrate the challenges and human stories that these advances will one day address, partnering with patient organizations or partners to showcase the unmet need and long term benefit of their investment. 

Rapidly mitigate issues

As health care systems have grown, so have the nature and intensity of the reputational challenges they face. Communicators are now responding to breaches of patient data from ransomware attacks, managing high-profile malpractice litigation and explaining labor challenges leading to staffing shortages. A slow or poor response to an issue in a single part of the network can irretrievably damage the reputation of the entire system.  

My colleagues Katherine F. Mackinnon and Jim Moorhead have written about how organizations can put an end to a cycle of crises by:

  1. improving intelligence gathering across the network;
  2. operationalizing and practicing responses with a nominated response team and
  3. streamlining processes to enable rapid responses. As important in any response is top-to-bottom support for the longer challenge of rebuilding confidence and trust after a crisis event. 

Hospital brands have the tools they need to differentiate themselves in the crowded media landscape. They offer patients and communities support every day and contain their own unique and powerful stories. The systems on the leading edge of medical research bring forward the promise of better health care in the future. To break through the noise and build their brands during this turbulent time, effective and consistent storytelling will ensure that these powerful stories are heard across the United States and around the world.