Adding Value to Your Health System's Political Strategy

by Katy Mena-Berkley, Copywriter - 10/09/19



Communications expertise is critical to implement an effective advocacy plan.

As the 2020 election draws closer, healthcare again moves into the national spotlight with issues like the future of Medicare emerging as a critical platform for candidates on both sides of the aisle. Healthcare marketers are positioned well to advance reform in public policy on national and local levels; however, to effect change that benefits your patients and your organization, your healthcare marketing team will need to move beyond PR and into advocacy.

Appealing to the minds and hearts of public policy personnel is an endeavor that must be approached with the utmost finesse. This is the message Olympic Medical Center marketing and HR leaders drove home in a presentation during the 2019 Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development Annual Conference.

Jennifer Burkhardt Olympic Medical Center

The presentation, “Going Beyond Political Strategy: Adding Value Through PR and Communication Strategy Expertise,” was led by the hospital’s Communications and Public Affairs Manager Bobby Beeman and General Counsel and Chief Human Resources Officer Jennifer Burkhardt and outlined key tactics hospital marketing teams can rely on to successfully reach decision-makers in their communities.

Partnering with senior leaders to reach elected officials and policy makers is an area of untapped potential for most communications professionals.

“Combining public relations talent with an organization’s content experts creates a powerful team,” says Burkhardt (pictured above). “A multidisciplinary team can translate complex legislative and regulatory issues into advocacy initiatives that promote public understanding and build important community support.”

How PR Professionals Add Value to Advocacy

Beeman and Burkhardt outline the differences between a public relations strategist and a lobbyist. Specifically, they underscore the power of the PR professional to tell a hospital’s story effectively, identify the appropriate influencers to invoke positive changes where policy is concerned and share a diversified message with various audiences.

Bobby Beeman Olympic Medical Center“Expanding into public affairs has been tremendously valuable. It’s a muscle that many communicators and public relations professionals don’t think to use, but from my experience, it is one of the most important,” says Beeman (pictured at left).

According to Burkhardt, “If more hospitals and health systems effectively deliver the hospital story to elected officials and policymakers, we can make a positive difference to ensure hospitals receive adequate reimbursement, Americans have access to affordable healthcare coverage and we can work toward common sense regulations.”

At the heart of this issue is the importance of storytelling that illustrates how thoughtfully implemented legislation stands to affect patients, staff physicians and influencers.

“Relationships matter,” Burkhardt says. “Every connection with a community member, elected official and policymaker should be considered part of the long game to build and foster your hospital’s reputation.”

Case Study: Olympic Medical Center 

In 2018, Olympic Medical Center took its own advice in the face of cuts to Medicare reimbursement for off-site, hospital-based clinic services. The proposition would have resulted in an estimated loss of nearly $48 million during the next decade, a significant financial impact for the rural healthcare system.

“We faced the challenge of educating our community on healthcare economics, sharing the impact of those economic decisions on our patients in a relatable way, and identifying meaningful action our community could take,” Burkhardt says.  

To effect change, the Olympic Medical team harnessed their communications expertise to unroll a letter-writing campaign to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Assembling a plan that included important talking points, in-person conversations, media outreach and social media messaging, as well as thousands of letters from community members to CMS, Olympic Medical was able to reduce cuts from 60% to 30% in the first year.

“It is important for communications professionals to know that we can make an impact within our healthcare systems,” Beeman says. “We are resourceful. We build relationships. We know how to diversify the message, and we know where and how to deliver it. What we found is that expanding into public affairs has been tremendously valuable.”

What We’ve Learned along the Way

As part of their SHSMD presentation, Beeman and Burkhardt offered the following tips based on their experience in developing and implementing an advocacy plan.

First, remember that as a healthcare strategist you know your community better than most and know the tools that work. Embrace the opportunity and contribute to your hospital’s public policy work.

Once advocacy is part of your strategic plan, here are recommended next steps when developing a campaign:

  • Identify the team and roles
  • Know the facts and develop the strategy
  • Identify your audience and how to reach them (find common ground)
  • Identify your spokespeople and influencers
  • Create key messages and contextual support
  • Check with your general counsel
  • Clearly identify roles in the action plan and monitor results

Finally, remember that advocacy is fluid. Collaborate with advocacy teams on a regular basis and contribute your expertise in organizational reputation, storytelling and promotion to tell the hospital story.

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