PR’s Top Pros Talk… Communicating as a Hospital During COVID
Josh Wilson, Director of Strategic Communications, Children’s National Hospital
How did healthcare workers help shape internal and external communications during COVID? Josh Wilson, Director of Strategic Communications at Children’s National Hospital, offers insights on how those on the front lines became spokespeople and embraced the duty of educating the public on what they were seeing within the hospital. Josh also shares how the hospital’s new DEI initiative invested in recruiting a diverse class of pediatric residents.
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About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: JOSH WILSON
DOUG: Obviously, the pandemic is taking up a huge amount of Josh’s time from a strategic communications standpoint, but first we thought we’d start with maybe a lighter topic, which is what’s your favorite part of your job for you?
JOSH: I think my favorite part is the variety at the job, that I have the opportunity to think about, how do we communicate about a new pet therapy dog, which we’re about to roll out soon to communicating about really complex science from some of our researchers to supporting the CEO when he’s preparing to deliver a presentation to our board or important group of stakeholders in the community. So, it really does tap into every part of my brain and makes every day different.
DOUG: And of course, as we are recording this on January 14th, the pandemic has spread to a new level. Children being affected is in the news so much from external, but let’s start with what you had to deal with from an internal perspective because there might be a lot more lessons learned for communicators who are now grappling with some of the issues that you’ve had ongoing for close to two years. What were some of the big communications challenges at the start from an internal perspective, and then we can get into how that’s evolved?
JOSH: Sure, I think there was so much information coming at all of us. Certainly healthcare workers and certainly a lot from the regulatory perspective, what you had to wear, at certain points you had add goggles or there were new restrictions on coming back to work. So, there was a huge volume of information, and then I think, like all of us, a big demand to know what was going on, what were the latest insights into what we know about the virus, the new treatments, whether it was monoclonal antibodies, or the new vaccines, or new anti-viral pills that have recently come onto the market. So, there’s just a huge volume of information, and I think our employees, like everybody else, were interested in what they needed to know to do their jobs better.
DOUG: And I would think for your employees being on the frontlines themselves, literally, there is probably information you can glean from them that could help you shape your messaging both to internal and external audiences. During this whole crisis mode, how did you go about finding that information and figuring out what you needed to communicate, given the avalanche of content?
JOSH: Our best spokespeople are our employees, and we were really fortunate to have a lot of employees who, in addition to caring for children and families in the community, saw it as part of their duty to educate the public on what they were seeing within the hospital and within our ambulatory sites around the community, and sharing that information with not only families, but with other providers, pediatricians, other children’s hospitals, so that they could share information and become smarter on that. And there were a variety of ways that information would make it to the external team, but we were constantly keeping our ears open for insights that we thought would be valuable to some of those other stakeholders and in our universe.
DOUG: Now, with the so-called Great Resignation that people are perceiving, many organizations are dealing with the importance of recognizing the growing importance of internal communications. Do you have any recommendations, tips for them based on what you’ve experienced?
JOSH: Probably more frequent communication than you might think you need, and repeating important messages more frequently, and in more channels, because people are being bombarded with information about so many different topics, it’s important that they hear it from you more than once because they might not have had an opportunity to read or read an email or attend a meeting. So, you want to repeat that. And I think giving people an opportunity to ask questions is really important too, and even if you can’t answer it in real-time, having a source of truth for them to go to, to get those answers after the fact.
DOUG: Yeah, and one of the challenges that you’re involved in yourself is making sure that you have a diverse workforce and as many organizations struggle to have sufficient staff to do the job, obviously it needs to become diverse because if not, then you’re only recruiting from a much smaller segment of the population. What role is DE&I playing in helping you maintain staff and keep everyone from sort of moving forward in the right direction?
JOSH: I was really proud that even in the midst of the pandemic, when we had so many responsibilities served in the community that was still going through that, we still launched and have had great success with the new DEI initiative. It’s always been important for the organization, but we really doubled down on our investments to make our organization more equitable and embrace some of the changes that we needed to make. One example that I’ll share with you, is that we trained pediatric residents. We have a really successful pediatric residency program and had an incoming residency class that was 3 times the national average. So, we got to celebrate that with our employees and also tell that story externally so that people that we’re trying to better understand us had a chance to see that we had invested in recruiting diverse pediatric residents, which is important for a lot of reasons. One of which is, that we know that children and adults have a better outcome when the provider looks like them, that there’s a greater, deeper trust that develops and that’s really the foundation to better care.
DOUG: Interesting. Now, of course, even though I started with an emphasis on internal comms, which is important, there are enormous external communication challenges, especially as it relates to kids, young kids, concerns, filling up hospitals, etc. How are you navigating that to get a clear message out to the community here, you’re in Washington, DC. How do you get that message out to the people that you’re serving?
JOSH: It’s a similar answer to what I spoke about with internal communications that it’s a repeated message in many channels that people externally, just like internally, are being bombarded with all sorts of information in their personal life, whether it’s about their kids schools or in their work responsibilities when they’re learning about different guidance. So, I think it’s having clarity in your message and then delivering it in as many channels as possible, whether it’s smaller local outlets or major national outlets.
DOUG: And how do you maintain that consistency of messaging because one of the challenges and thoughts used to be that for the different silos, you would communicate this way to one group, this way to another group, this way to a different group. Now that’s much harder because there’s so much crossover with internal communications becoming external and employees seeing what you’re communicating externally, internally, etc. How do you go about making sure it’s a consistent message when the mediums can be so different?
JOSH: Yeah, we have our really wonderful public relations team that will staff every interview and kind of have an opportunity to capture notes from those interactions and then make sure that we’re not deviating from a message that we told one outlet or if there is a change, it’s because there’s been a change in the circumstances on the ground and we need to update that. So, that’s been really helpful to have sort of that single sort of source of truth and to be able to update that as the information we’re receiving from the care teams causes us to update that information.
DOUG: And it must be especially rewarding for you knowing that how you handle, and your team handles communications can literally save people’s lives, especially children’s lives.
JOSH: Yeah, I think that really emerged when we were launching our vaccine efforts that understandably people had lots of questions about the vaccine, and the safety, and effectiveness for children, and that pediatricians specifically are often looked to as a source of guidance from families. So, to be able to put those pediatric leaders out there to answer questions that families had and to explain, oftentimes these pediatricians were parents of young children that what they were choosing to do with their families, that really was meaningful in this community and well beyond, and helping families decide that this was the right choice for them.
DOUG: I think you’ve given people some meaningful tips to help them do their jobs better and shared some great information. Congratulations on the great work you’re doing.
JOSH: Thank you. Pleasure to chat with you.