July 18, 2018

Nashville, Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, Inc.

Five Lessons Healthcare Communicators can Learn from Anthony Scaramucci

Anthony Scaramucci’s 10-day stint as White House Communications officer seems like a joke – and some good ones are circulating. But it also contains lessons for healthcare communicators. Really.

Though an unlikely educational source, Scaramucci’s R-rated conversation with the New Yorker epitomized elements of today’s hammer-and-tongs media environment.

First, choice quotes from his interview eclipsed major policy news and the goals of his employer in the White House. He was the story. That’s a testament to the news cycle, which is faster and hungrier for the extreme than ever before. It feeds on emotions and drama, pushing aside nuanced dialogue and complex discussions.

Second, his harsh attitude towards the press, his colleagues and lack of regard for traditional communications channels are in fashion with subsets of the public. The appetite for disruption can lead people to believe that measured, careful communications are less effective: If it’s not hysterical, it must not be true.

But those of us in healthcare operate in a different world. For healthcare communication leaders – who embody their organization every time they take the media stage – the Scaramucci incident makes the following practices even more important:

Remember, lives are at stake.

A glib, defensive attitude doesn’t play well when the subject matter is serious. Traditionally, that line of thinking has been applied to the White House. Though that may not be the case at the moment, healthcare communicators must still respect that patients trust health system employees with their lives every day. In good times and in crisis, health systems treat people at their most vulnerable. The voice of the institution must always account for the importance of its work. We must be the adult in the room.

Honor trust in healthcare institutions.

Faith in Washington officials is running low, but people still trust doctors and hospitals (for the moment, at least). That means that while White House employees may have runway to rail against the establishment, healthcare communicators usually work in an environment where the public’s trust is theirs to lose.

Don’t conflate shock value for straight-shooting.

Scaramucci billed himself as a straight-shooter. More broadly in the public discourse, coarseness is often passing for honesty. Healthcare communicators still must be extremely clear about the line between the two. In healthcare, the crucial result of communications is to improve care for the patient. If the story is about the messenger, then the focus is wrong.

Reporters are not your friend.

Reporters are professionals. Their job is to report the news objectively and share information about your health system to their readers, viewers and listeners To be sure, your relationships with reporters can be friendly, respectful and trusting. In fact, they should be. But don’t blur the lines between communicator and journalist.

Said another way: Respect the profession and its rules.

Tip one: If you don’t want to be quoted, don’t say it.

Tip two: If you are on the verge of a mental breakdown with a reporter, first say “Now, this is off the record, right?”

Fire people who are unbecoming to your institution.

Trust has never been more fragile. Without trust between your team, without trust within your organization and without the trust of your public, your most ambitious plans will fail.

Allow second chances for screw-ups and honest mistakes of velocity? Of course. But your failure to act on a deliberate abdication of trust communicates your endorsement of the behavior. Oh, people will say, so that’s who you are now? Your action – or lack of it – is as powerful a message as anything you could say.

For healthcare communicators, the silver lining of Scaramucci’s bizarre, flash-in-the-pan position is this: It provides us an opportunity for a gut-check. He is a product of the current environment, as are we. It’s our responsibility to create measured, sane voices that cut through the noise.

This post was first featured on Jarrardinc.com.