CMO Talks: Crisis Communication with Emory Healthcare’s Amy Comeau

There are few industries where crisis communication is more important than when it comes to healthcare, especially when you have the attention of the nation and the world. Our talk with Amy Comeau, the head of marketing at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, explores what it was like at a major healthcare organization hosting patients during the Ebola outbreak.

What can you do as a marketer to be prepared for crisis communication, plus practical tips to make sure your company has the best possible outcome.

More about this Healthcare Marketing and Crisis Readiness talk, the CMO Talks, as well as the full transcript are below.

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Award Winning Crisis Communications: Silencing an Epidemic of Fear

* Brian: Today we’re talking with Amy Comeau, the lead marketer for Emory Healthcare. Amy’s role oversees one of the largest healthcare systems in Georgia and the only one to integrate an academic healthcare network for the state. Welcome, Amy.

* Amy: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

* Brian: It’s great to have you. Many CMOs have to handle a crisis at some point in their tenure, but I understand you had a crisis happen immediately in taking your role at Emory Healthcare. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

* Amy: It’s interesting. Although I’d been at Emory for a number of years, I had only been in my role barely a few weeks as the Corporate Director for Marketing when I got a call from my dear colleague that we would be receiving the very first Ebola patients to be treated in the United States later that week. It was a call that I will never forget. It launched us into really quite a journey for Emory Healthcare, a really wonderful experience that had very good outcomes, but certainly was something that I certainly did launch into just barely weeks after being named into my role.

* Brian: That’s fascinating. I can’t imagine what that was like. Since you were in that situation, and since then, you’ve won many awards for the communication effort around handling that crisis. Can you tell us, was there something in your career or in your background that prepared you to handle that?

* Amy: I’ve spent my entire career in marketing and public relations. The interesting part of my background- I think we talked about it earlier- is I spent the first ten years of my career in the performing arts. Although it’s a smaller scale than being the largest healthcare system in Georgia, when I came to Atlanta as the PR manager for the Atlanta Opera, within barely a couple of months of being there, we ended up having to fire our two lead singers for our opening night performance. Again, it seems that I have this knack for walking into crisis situations. That actually prepared me well for thinking about how to … what are the keys to successful crisis communications but also how to mobilize quickly when that’s happening, no matter what your experience is or what your tenure is with an organization.

* Brian: I’m sure there were many unknowns during that time. Can you tell us a little bit about how you handled it and what you did, and your team, to make it a success?

* Amy: Yes, absolutely. One of the keys to success for us is that at Emory our marketing, PR, and communications are actually decentralized. My team handles all the external marketing. I have a colleague, a peer, who handles internal communications and another peer who handles PR and public relations. What was key is that we had internal meetings leading up to the arrival of the Ebola patients where we were very clear on what roles each one of us played. My team handled the external marketing and social media. Vince’s team handled PR. Melanie’s team handled internal communications. First and foremost, the three of us had worked together for a long time. Having that collegiality and unspoken norms among the three of us really helped us mobilize when we were in this crisis situation.

* Amy: The other piece, which I’ll share later on today, is that the most important thing with crisis communications is that you let your internal audiences know first, because the last thing you want is for your own employees to hear about it in the media, or now social media, first. We needed to come together very quickly to align on messaging and what we called the message hygiene so that we’re all very specific on what the messages are that we’re putting out, who’s putting what out when, and that we’re cascading those appropriately to each of our audiences. It was internal first, then the media, then we’d post on social media. Having that tight-knit relationship with your PR, marketing, communications colleagues is crucial.

* Amy: My advice to anybody who will be here today or is watching the interview today is that make sure that you build those relationships with your colleagues now so that should a crisis or high-profile communication occur in your organization, that you’re not waiting until that point in time to build those relationships and protocols.

* Brian: That’s great advice. Great advice. Is there anything else that stood out in retrospect that made it a success for you in such a tough time?

* Amy: Yes. I think all that communication, that collaboration, was very important. I think the other piece for us is obviously we were well prepared as an organization. I had the privilege of talking about this from a marketing and handling it from a marketing perspective, but it was really our internal teams, our clinical teams, that were able to shine. They had been practicing, literally practicing and doing drills on this isolation unit for over a decade, being prepared for just this type of situation. Their efforts and their long-term efforts towards treating patients like these or similar patients like these really made our job easy. They were very tightly coordinated. They were very collaborative. Our team was very collaborative with us on approving the right messaging to be going out and the correct content, because in this situation, there is so much misinformation that was spreading like wild as you may recall.

* Amy: Our key was to make sure that we were putting out the facts and really fighting the fear with facts to make sure that people understood and knew what was really going on. It was really those clinical teams that … They’re the superstars. They’re the superstars in all this. It was their work that in retrospect allowed us to have such a successful outcome.

* Brian: The CDC is based here, the Center for Disease Control. How did you collaborate with them? Did it make it easier from a communication and marketing point of view, a PR point of view, or …? Can you tell us a little bit about those types of relationships?

* Amy: Yes. I can share a little bit with it. That was mostly handled through our PR team, which is my other colleague, Vince, worked with. They worked very tightly to make sure that we had … I’d say guardrails … I want to say guardrails, guardrails of who handled what messaging. It goes back to that message hygiene. We were very specific about talking about what was happening at Emory, how our isolation unit worked, what our protocols were. The public health portion of Ebola, that was the CDC’s realm. We internally, in high collaboration with them, discussed who was going to handle what topics. Of course, their being here, right down the street from us, only added to the ease of collaboration.

* Brian: Great, great. Just to wrap up, do you have any other tips or advice for people in a similar role to you or that might be aspiring to be in a situation or a role like yourself?

* Amy: One of the things that whenever I give talks or interviews like this I want people to realize … Although I work for the largest healthcare organization in Georgia, I didn’t always. Early in my career I worked for very small nonprofits. The keys to success in any of these situations? They can apply no matter how large or small your organization is.

* Amy: My three takeaways for individuals either aspiring to this role or who are in similar roles at organizations large or small are one, make sure that you know your PR, communications, and marketing colleagues. If you are a one-woman band, then you are good. If you don’t have those, if you are decentralized, make sure you get to know them and get to know them today. Secondly, when a crisis does occur, if it does occur in the organization, get your messaging straight right away and consistent across the organization, and make sure you’re telling your internal audiences first. Be ready for them, once you tell your internal audiences, for it to get out into the media, but make sure you tell them first. That’s secondary. Then third, the best thing that you can do is fight fear with facts. When you have a crisis, the best thing you can do instead of getting defensive is just to keep pushing out the facts about what’s happening. For us that really helped turn the tide of positive sentiment during the Ebola crisis. Those are some of the key takeaways that I would recommend.

* Brian: That’s great. It’s really good to have you, and thank you for being here today.

* Amy: It’s my pleasure. I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

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