From the time we enter our formative years, we’re told that to make friends and avoid unnecessary disagreements, we should never discuss religion or politics in public. It’s a general rule that is well worth remembering – whether you’re building personal friendships or business relationships.
Sometimes, though, a public affairs issue casts such a large shadow that its influence is hard to ignore. For many healthcare organizations, the recent debate over healthcare reform has been the proverbial “elephant in the living room.”
While the broader issue was controversial, it created a rare opportunity to make a positive, inclusive statement. It’s a tricky balancing act. And to make it work requires developing and implementing a public affairs strategy that exhibits great awareness, sensitivity and deftness.
Focusing on What’s Most Important
The recent observance of Doctors Day created just such a public affairs opportunity for one of our clients, Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care. National Doctors Day (March 30th) is a day established to recognize physicians, their work and their contributions to society and their respective communities.
Beginning in early December, 2016, our plan was to work with medical directors from each of Crossroads’ 11 regional sites to develop an op-ed commentary that would pay homage to primary care physicians throughout their local regions for the ongoing commitment and sacrifice that they demonstrate on behalf of their patients.
Making the Connection
In the midst of this highly debated public affairs issue of healthcare reform, the connection between hospice doctors and the potential challenges facing primary care physicians was particularly apparent. Hospice doctors care for patients and their families in their most vulnerable moments – guiding and comforting them through some of the toughest decisions they will ever make. What kind of quality of life does the patient want? What side effects can be expected from chemo or certain medications? What’s the best way to deal with pain? It’s a role hospice doctors readily accept.
Likewise, patients often rely on their primary care physicians to help make health-related decisions that affect healthcare costs, quality of care and outcomes. Depending on how the healthcare reform debate turns out, many doctors may find themselves in similar roles, as they are called upon to help their patients navigate issues of access, care and insurance. It’s no exaggeration to say that for millions of people such decisions ultimately could become a life or death matter. It was these brave doctors, fighting on the front lines every day, who were the focus of the commentary.
An Inclusive Message
One basic goal was to offer a message of inclusion, a sharp contrast from the divisiveness that the healthcare reform debate had engendered throughout the campaign season. From a public affairs perspective, Crossroads’ medical directors embraced that idea. As medical professionals they well understood the sensitivity and the challenges that their primary care colleagues would be facing regardless of how the healthcare reform debate played out among national policymakers. The bottom line was that primary care physicians would still be called upon to help their patients to the best of their abilities.
The commentary we developed (“Saluting Our Doctors: The Calm Within the Storm”) studiously avoided taking a partisan side of the public affairs debate, instead urging policymakers to take a cue from the physicians’ creed: “First, do no harm.”
Timing was also a consideration. Had legislation been introduced and passed within days of the presidential inauguration, a commentary calling for policymakers not to act hastily would have been moot. From our public affairs experience, we thought such quick action was unlikely. At worst, legislation might pass the House, but then be sitting in the Senate awaiting action by the time the Doctors Day op-ed would appear. It was a chance worth taking.
In the end, everything fell into place. Crossroads medical directors had the opportunity to make a very positive observation relating to a highly visible public affairs issue, thus increasing the chances that the commentary would be selected by respective editors from thousands of submissions for publication. In addition, Crossroads demonstrated that its professionals understood the ramifications of healthcare policy and cared about the potential impact on patients and families. As a hospice provider, caring for patients and their families is, very simply, what Crossroads does. The op-ed campaign helped burnish its image in that regard.
The public affairs campaign was highly successful, with placements across seven of nine participating Crossroads sites. Major placements included The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron.com, The Philadelphia Business Journal and Cleveland.com. All told, the campaign resulted in more than 2.2 million impressions across the Crossroads footprint, earning it an enhanced reputation as an organization that keeps its eye on the ball, focusing on the most important aspects of public policy – how anticipated changes could affect the patients, families and communities it serves.