The messages your organization send out to the community shape people’s perceptions and expectations, so every communiqué should be thought out and part of a strategy.
“A communication strategy is essential to tell your story to multiple audiences,” says Wendy Steinberg, vice president of communications at RiverSpring Health in Riverdale, NY. “It’s crucial to have a plan in place and to make sure you are conveying consistent messages in a single voice. You don’t want to be the best-kept secret.”
Steinberg warns that no one is going to tell your story for you.
“Developing a communications strategy for your organization is a critical piece of maintaining or enhancing your organization’s identity and visibility,” adds Amanda Marr, vice president, communications for LeadingAge.
Every organization needs a purposeful communication strategy specific to its audiences that can be executed throughout the organization on all levels, says Joe Chambers, vice president of sales and marketing at Lifespace Communities in West Des Moines, IA.
“If you are not communicating a cohesive message at all levels, the message can become distorted,” Chambers explains. “You need a consistent message to cascade through the organization.”
Developing a Communications Strategy
Before developing a communications strategy, Steinberg recommends gathering information, talking with residents and immersing oneself in all aspects of the organization.
“You cannot create a plan sitting behind a desk,” Steinberg says. “You must discover what makes your organization unique and the messages you want to convey.”
Things change, so the strategy should remain flexible and as current as possible.
Marr describes a strategy as “what needs to change.” It requires people to identify opportunities ripe for improvement. For example, one element of a communications strategy might include increasing visibility for the CEO and senior leadership. In this example, what needs to change is the current way the CEO and senior leadership are being promoted.
“When developing a communications strategy, make sure it aligns with your strategic priorities and that objectives can be measured,” Marr advises. Then “refer back to your strategy regularly and monitor progress.”
Steinberg indicates the communication plan should include a website, social media, collateral materials, branding standards, logos, and earned and paid media. Different audiences receive information from different platforms.
Chambers indicates that Lifespace uses both digital and print to reach certain audiences. The organization has developed both internal and external communication strategies.
At RiverSpring Health, Steinberg collaborates with colleagues on all forms of communications, advising them to run fliers or other materials past her before distributing, so she can make sure the material is consistent with the organization’s voice and look. All employees have a branding folder on their desktop computer, with logos, fonts and photos, to help them make good choices. All staff members know to refer media calls to Steinberg, who will prepare the source.
“This advance legwork ensures there won’t be any surprises during [an] interview,” Steinberg says.
Lifespace has developed templates, a brand standard manual and style guides for the organization. Team members at local communities can use the resources or seek assistance from corporate communications.
Communication vs. Marketing Strategy
People often co-mingle marketing and communication strategies. But they are different.
“In aging services, a marketing strategy typically focuses on recruiting new residents or clients, while a communications strategy would be about overall visibility of the organization,” Marr says. “This is where it gets confusing, because promoting the visibility of your organizations does contribute to a person’s perception of that organization and might influence his or her decision about living there.”
Gary Horning, vice president of marketing and communications at Otterbein Senior Lifestyle Choices, based in Lebanon, OH, with 17 communities in 2 states, explains that a communication strategy is more focused on brand and image, while a marketing strategy is focused on marketing a community, an event, or the services and care provided.
Social media, Facebook and Twitter especially, has become a part of most organizations’ communication strategies.
“Utilizing social media is critical to an effective communication strategy,” Chambers says. “As an organization, we have to embrace it, because it is no longer the wave of the future. It’s now.”
Family members often compare retirement communities on social-media platforms.
“If you are not on social media, it is surprising,” says Tessa Atkinson-Adams, communications associate, who is responsible for social media at LeadingAge. “It’s often the first place people look for information about an organization. I recommend it as a way to build a community.”
Using social media effectively requires regular posting of content on all platforms. Atkinson-Adams recommends developing a content plan, then making sure you can keep up with regular posting, before adding additional platforms.
“Social media gives us a chance to get our message heard by a larger audience,” adds Atkinson-Adams. “We post things that have a broad interest.”
Steinberg recommends the power of video; even a short one can engage audiences.
“Social media is an important part of your communications mix,” Steinberg says. “It is a platform for conveying timely news, including weather-related information for families, fundraising events, resident programs and media coverage.”
Over time and with consistent attention, social media builds followers, Atkinson-Adams adds. Those people can be contacted for future activities, such as a food drive or a call to action, such as a call to contact Congressional representatives if an important vote is being considered, a strategy LeadingAge used to help preserve HUD 202 funding.
Horning calls social media “scary” because of the lack of any control, but acknowledges that Otterbein uses it to share information about an event or activity. He tries to stay away from anything controversial. Everything goes through the corporate communications department. Otterbein will not respond to negative comments, because responses often perpetuate misinformation.
Otterbein has a stringent policy against the use of social media about the organization or a resident by staff, and has terminated employees who have violated the policy.
Some people are hesitant to jump into social media because of the possibility of the organization receiving negative comments. Atkinson-Adams acknowledges everyone has the right to free speech and to post a negative viewpoint. She advises leaving the comment alone, and it will eventually drop down in the feed as an organization posts new content.
“The attention the comment gets is very small,” she says. “It passes by.”
Working With the Media
RiverSpring Health leads with stories about people in its care, the heartwarming stories of residents and the amazing things they are doing.
“In essence, our residents are our ambassadors,” Steinberg says. “Their stories are what motivate us each day to deliver the best possible care.”
Steinberg builds relationships with journalists, and RiverSpring Health serves as a resource for aging topics.
“We do not wait for the phone to ring,” she said. “We reach out to reporters and make connections.”
At Otterbein, Horning tries to keep media communication “as tightly controlled as we can, with our absolute demand for privacy for residents, patients and partners.” All calls are funneled through the communications department and are vetted by leadership.
The same is true for Lifespace Communities.
Having a crisis plan is critical to an organization’s success.
“Crisis communications focuses on protecting the reputation of a company, an executive, or both, in the event of a threat,” Marr explains. “An organization’s top priority is to ensure the health and safety of its residents and staff. Leadership then needs to take control of the situation by gathering the facts, verifying and communicating the situation—both bad news and good—at once. Do not blame, do not speculate. Lay out the facts, explain the story, and take responsibility. Be sure to express care and concern for those affected. Senior leadership should be totally transparent and visible: A crisis is the time for leaders to step forward. Communicate a plan for fixing the problem and ensuring that it will not occur again.”
If something happens at an Otterbein community, press calls are forwarded to Horning, who will talk with leaders at that community, understand the situation and draft a response from the leadership team. He said local employees like that policy, so they can focus on delivering quality of care.
“It’s important to be as transparent as possible without giving away confidential information,” Horning said.
When a fire broke out on the Lebanon campus, Horning told reporters what happened but said nothing that could interfere with official investigations. However, he told reporters when that information became available, he would share it with them.
In addition to its overall communication strategies, Lifespace develops a detailed annual crisis communications plan for all its communities and conducts a training session about it. Examples may include a bomb threat or an active shooter situation.
Lifespace developed a comprehensive communication plan to deal with Hurricane Irma, which whipped through Florida in September 2017. The organization used multiple channels, including its website, Facebook and a hotline for family members to call for information. Team members in the home office checked the line every hour and returned calls within two hours, 24 hours a day.
“Family members felt they had a direct line to us,” Chambers recalls.
Lifespace evacuated 2 coastal communities to hotels in Orlando, taking team members with them. The communication plan included notifying family members where their loved ones were and how they were being cared for.
“Once we are aware of a situation, we work as quickly as possible to prepare communication for the media, residents and our team members,” Chambers says. “You have to be truthful and honest at all times. People can forgive a situation. They cannot forgive false information.”
Debra Wood, R.N., is a writer who lives in Orlando, FL.