Interview with Laurie Roma, Universal Health Services, Inc.

During today’s uncertain times, marketing and communications pros are being forced to operate through previously uncharted waters. To learn more about navigating this situation, we’ve interviewed communications experts across industries.

This interview is with Laurie Roma, Senior Manager, Social Media for Universal Health Services, Inc., one of the nation’s largest providers of hospital and healthcare services.

What has been your overarching approach to communication in this time of crisis?

Preparedness, transparency and anticipating what is next to come has been key for our team. In early February, Paul Stefanacci, MD, FACS, MBA, Vice President of Quality and Chief Medical Officer of UHS, spoke to the New York Times about our coronavirus preparedness efforts. Around that same time, things kicked into high gear for our Corporate Communications Team, made up of Public Relations, Internal Communications, Social Media and Account Management, and the Agency at UHS, comprised of writers, publications, print designers, traffic coordinators, web team and production team. In healthcare, there are set observances for which we develop toolkits – for example, American Heart Month or Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. We approached the need for a coronavirus toolkit much like those mentioned. We developed, and continue to develop, materials that answer the public’s questions with facts from trusted and official resources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As UHS is a healthcare provider with 400 acute care hospitals, behavioral health facilities and ambulatory centers across the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.K., we needed to scale this effort to meet the needs of a diverse population base, so it was key that we standardize our messaging and develop content related to physical health and symptoms for our acute care hospitals and ambulatory centers, and also stress, anxiety and depression for our behavioral health facilities. This approach worked well, and as the virus moves into more of our markets, this messaging has become interchangeable among the populations we serve. Our corporate Incident Command team, critical during past times of crisis for our company (such as the Route 91 shooting in Las Vegas and Hurricanes Harvey and Michael), became key partners in developing standard approaches to visitation, programmatic changes and accepting donations. Their work enabled our corporate communications and agency teams to distribute critical information about hospital services and needs across necessary channels quickly and correctly. As we moved into last week, we developed shareable and easy to digest content related to social distancing and slowing the spread. Balancing community resource messaging, localized photography that recognizes the lifesaving work of our employees, the generosity of our communities and thanking our, and all, healthcare professionals for their tireless work, has become a priority. 

What do you think has been your most effective communication?

To date, we have had a few major wins. Most significantly, The George Washington University Hospital’s Keith Mortman, MD, Director of Thoracic Surgery, participated in a podcast in which he detailed his first-in-nation use of ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, to treat a patient transferred to the hospital with diagnosed coronavirus. Mortman used Surgical Theater’s virtual reality (VR) tools to capture 3-D video of a coronavirus infection in the lungs. Our social media graphic designer worked closely with the hospital to obtain this VR footage and develop a video that merged the podcast audio with the surgical theater visual for easy comprehension and sharing. The public relations and social media teams worked together to get the information pushed out quickly once the video was live on the page that our web team had developed. The story, which is incredibly impactful, was shared across UHS and The George Washington University Hospital’s social media channels, and was picked up by CNN, Daily Mail, Business Insider and The Independent. Additionally, UHS’, Chairman and CEO, Alan B. Miller, and President, Marc D. Miller, wrote a letter to send to all UHS employees, explaining the work being done to scale operations to meet our client and community needs at this time, and to, of course, thank our healthcare workers for the tremendous job they are doing at our hospitals. Our social media graphic designer worked to turn that into a shareable piece for social media as well. The next big project kicks off with #HealthcareHeroes2020 campaign, a movement to recognize our healthcare workers and support our UHS teams serving on the front line. Social media is a storytelling platform, and capturing these stories for people staying at home becomes another way to connect with our audiences, educate them on the situation as it’s evolving in their market and personify the tireless work and dedication of our Healthcare Heroes across UHS. 

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for communicators in the coming weeks and months?

Personally, it has been interesting to watch people pull their advertising and change course, which I think is the right thing to do. It’s also been fascinating to see the brands that have not done this. Even in the personal social media space, some have scaled back on their posting, or are sharing stories from home, while others stay on brand and share photos as if nothing is amiss. For UHS, we strive to be a provider, employer and resource of choice in our communities. Right now, our goal is to continue to instill confidence in the quality of the care we are providing, to be compassionate of those reaching out seeking guidance and who are anxious and stressed from both the patient facing and healthcare professional angles (we are experiencing a phenomenal increase in messaging and comments), and expressing gratitude for the generous donations we are receiving. We are adjusting tone as needed as the crisis evolves, and using #HealthcareHeroes2020 to accomplish that. The biggest takeaway for all industries is expressing compassion and being mindful of tone in this unprecedented time. 

What advice do you have for people in marketing communications for whom this is their first crisis situation?

Trust your gut, but always think things through before reacting, with a focus on the big picture. It’s like science class. Every action has a reaction, and even though things move quickly in a time of crisis, taking that moment to think about how people will react when they see your messaging is a necessary exercise. Take a deep breath. We’re going to be in this for a while, but we’re in it together. 

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