Friday, September 30, 2011

Communications manager at public institution proud of not communicating

No one knows who this person is
Jana Snidely is very happy with the results of her first five years as Metro Health Sciences Centre's Director of Communications. Under her direction the hospital has done hardly any communicating at all.

"I'm so pleased that our strategy of basically shutting up and not saying anything to anyone has proven to be widely successful," said Snidely in her annual report to the Board of Directors. "The public don't know who we are or what we do. If it wasn't for the big "H" sign at the front door, they would drive right by and think we were a big, drab office building or something."

When she took over five years ago the hospital was trying to do too much communicating, including a community outreach program, an external newsletter, ads  in the local newspaper and self-help articles published on its website. All those were shut down in the first five months after Snidely took over.

"We took all of those things and threw them in the garbage. We were talking way too much to regular people about what goes on in here. The public was actually beginning to understand their health care system instead of looking at it in dumbfounded amazement and awe. We'd lost control of our message," said Snidely.

The new program Snidely put in place reduced the entire communications program to press releases that reacted to bad news and an internal newsletter that few of the staff at the hospital actually read. In the process she cut the communications budget by half.

"We couldn't just ignore the outside world totally. So, we did issues press releases when something really bad happened. Terrible accidents, hospital viruses and stuff -- they couldn't be helped. But we tried to cover them up as much as possible," said Snidely.

"Our award-winning internal newsletter was tweaked so that most of the stories were about individual departments without any regard to the big issues of the work place. By and large, most people now just look at the pictures and throw it away," she said.

The hospital's website was also changed to make navigation more difficult and make key files and services hard to find.

The results were overwhelmingly successful. According to Snidely, negative letters to the editor in the newspaper dropped 75%, with most now complaining about bad service at other hospitals by mistake. Patient complaints fell 60% and web traffic fell 35%.

"We are in total control of our message and our image. No one is saying anything negative about us like they used to because they practically don't even know we exist," said Snidely.

One recent letter to the editor shows the power of Snidely's communications strategy. "I had to wait nearly two days in the ER because they were no beds in a local hospital that I can't remember the name of," said a recent letter to the Metro Morning newspaper by Mrs. Dibble Brewer. "Whenever I find out who they are, I plan to complain about it."

More important, recent government reports on the hospital’s performance have been not been negative at all. Before the strategy was created, the hospital used to get lots of government attention about its huge deficit, labour problems and poor service. Now, the reports often forget to mention the hospital at all. Snidely calls that a great victory.

"The credit has to go to the people of this hospital. It took them a while to understand our strategy of not communicating. Initially, they would keep coming to me with ideas about social media or new content for our websites or even school demonstrations and I would have to turn them down. Now, they don’t even bother. In fact, many of them now believe that the hospital doesn’t even have a communications staff at all. That’s exactly the result I was looking for,” said Snidely.

Snidely is now working on a new communications strategy that takes not communicating to new heights. Called “Just send the money”, the integrated campaign will feature a number of initiatives that will make the hospital harder to find on a map and will promote the idea that Metro is not in fact served by any hospital at all and that people need to go to another city for service.