At Rush University Medical Center, our battle cry as COVID-19 hit Chicago was “we’re built for this.” While true about the physical facility, this principle especially applies to our workforce. Our people continue to be our greatest resource. They are truly built for this.
A foundation of our approach to crisis management started with 9/11. As a result, Rush University Medical Center was prepared for this type of new crisis. In a matter of weeks, the hospital was flipped from regular business to COVID-19 patient care. Lobbies had inner workings for IT and airflows to become new units—and it was all by design.
We’re a culture built around excellence, focused on quality outcomes, teamwork and transparency. Our tagline is “excellence is just the beginning.” That authentic aspiration fuels all our marketing and communications.
Creating the Playbook
Early in the crisis, I could hear the CEO saying “there is no playbook for this.” So it’s no surprise that someone suggested we capture the steps taken to manage the situation. Our team worked with operational leaders to package a comprehensive crisis management resource. It was titled: “Excellence Leads the Way: A playbook for navigating the clinical and operational challenges of a global health crisis.”
We developed a similar playbook for the university response, too. The university went virtual overnight. We had the tools, as prior to COVID-19, our nursing school was ranked No. 1 online by U.S. News and World Report. We had worked so hard on preparedness that documentation was a way to capture the how-to moments. The response from other organizations and social media was inspiring. We put our story out there as many of our peers needed ideas for how to manage COVID-19 within their own organizations. This later transformed into a new method to serve the community as a “business solutions” resource and consultation service.
In light of COVID-19, we reduced our spending for TV and radio and paused patient acquisition channels. This was dark for about 6–7 weeks until early May, when we could start again with electives on May 13.
Our social media and earned media placements were incredible. We had leaders, experts and providers featured on local, regional, national and international outlets. During this time, we saw over 40,000 non-COVID-19 emergent cases. We started gathering those stories so they could be told late April to May and we could say “it’s safe to come back” in our marketing.
We did some quick research to help plan our pivot, but we also knew how consumers felt. They were anxious and needing information. Engagement on email and social media was incredible. Email open rates skyrocketed to 60% for consumers and 40% for referral audiences. Our social media reach and engagement were competing with national leaders. Internal signage and out-of-home (OOH) advertising were motivational for staff. This included a big “wash your hands” sign on the side of our hospital overlooking a major highway in Chicago. We added radio back into the mix—including an ad we planned, wrote, produced and aired in a week. People noticed it all.
Keeping the Team Engaged
To mirror the frontline mindset during the crisis, we moved to shift work in marketing. Every day, we huddled with the university at 8 am, the hospital command at 9 am, and the rest of the marketing team at 11 am. The afternoon became work time or opportunities for collaboration. It all funneled back in around 4 pm for the daily communications updates for Rush University Medical Center staff, students and messaging for patients.
Assignments and priorities were incredibly clear during the early days of COVID-19. The focus helped so much for the business of the day. We had people on daily assignments or “not on call” that day, so our rotation offers the chance for a breather or to look at recovery business (which we hoped was coming).
Going back to the playbook, we told ourselves, “We need to come up with the answers, who else could give us ideas?” This was our first pandemic. We relied on each other and talked through decisions. Another piece of our brand is that team component. We’re at our best in a crisis.
As we have moved into the recovery phase, I saw some old habits returning where leaders were benchmarking our marketing to others. I remind folks that sometimes being original is the way to stand out. I am proud of the work Rush University Medical Center has accomplished and am honored to be part of the storytelling. Sometimes, we need a reminder of our role as a leader.
When I think about how to keep the momentum of the past few months going for healthcare marketers, I believe we need to retain the nimbleness we’ve achieved as we move forward. Not everything needs to be the big, slow-moving iceberg. For example, we are sometimes filming videos with our phones. We have embraced the virtual meeting rooms. Some of us have to be here to lead in categories for operations, but many members of the team are at home.
The delivery of virtual care will also be a mainstay. We were doing this a year before COVID-19. Initially, we had great next-day access and consult appointments. We’re now pushing digital front door initiatives with video or virtual visits and encouraging consumers to come to us for a second opinion. Many of these entry points lead to patients realizing they need it or coming in for care.
Finally, I would advise peers to get comfortable asking questions. Lessons learned during the massive digital meeting era will help us with our digital etiquette for how we collaborate and act. I think people will be more engaged. If not, others will notice!
About the Author: Ryan Nagdeman is associate vice president of marketing and communications at Rush University Medical Center. He recently joined the advisory board of our Healthcare Insight magazine. He leads marketing teams for all Rush hospital, academic and research advertising campaigns, targeted marketing, marketing administration, and digital properties, including the web and social assets.
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