NAVIGATING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC
CLIENT: skilled nursing facilities
In January of 2020, governments, public health experts and the news media began focusing attention on an outbreak of an upper respiratory disease caused by a novel strain of the coronavirus in China. COVID-19, as the disease caused by the virus became known, soon spread to other parts of the globe, sparking epidemics in Europe and North America. By early March, the coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and began to affect daily life in the United States. By early April, the rapid spread of infection had overwhelmed every facet of American life.
All of our clients were impacted to one extent or another by the pandemic. Heath care, human services, education, technology and community-based organizations all quickly adapted to school closures, social distancing, work-from-home guidelines, and strict quarantine orders from authorities. Skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes) would face their greatest challenge ever. The majority of people who would die from COVID-19 in Massachusetts were nursing home residents. This case study describes how we helped nursing homes to navigate the darkest days of this crisis.
The needs of each nursing home varied, both in scope and immediacy. While we tailored our work to best fit each client’s situation, we made one common commitment to all: that our organization would work side-by-side with them and assist in any way that we could – we were their partners.
During this crisis, our goals were to:
- Counsel our clients in managing every public-facing facet of the crisis.
- Craft communications related to the crisis customized for key audiences, including residents and families, employees, public officials and the broader community.
- Ensure sensitivity in communicating with families, some of whom were experiencing extreme anxiety due to restrictions on all visitation.
- Develop media materials such as statements and press releases that would communicate key news about the particular facility and be responsive to media requests.
- Help clients to keep their communities informed, maintain public confidence, and enlighten the public about the immense challenge they were facing, all within a complex and fast-paced media environment.
Because of the varied issues facing nursing homes, we found ourselves serving clients in myriad ways, including media trainings, managing communications with state and local officials and even identifying sources of PPE and other supplies. Over the course of the pandemic, we crafted media statements to respond to probing questions from journalists and developed communications for families and other stakeholders that kept them appraised of the situation.
When working directly with members of the media, we helped ensure more balanced coverage and protected clients’ reputations despite an onslaught of media interest. We spotlighted the heroic actions of nursing home employees. This was all done while being honest brokers of information crucial to the public’s understanding of the pandemic and its tremendous impact on nursing homes. We were quick to address misinformation or inaccuracies in reporting that resulted from a situation that was continuously changing.
By leveraging our team’s experience with the skilled nursing profession and the news media, we helped several clients land positive placements about the extraordinary work of nursing home staff and their efforts to protect residents during this unprecedented public health crisis.
Our work on behalf of our clients with the media and their communities allowed them to focus on delivering care for their residents despite the immense strain of the COVID-19 crisis. We believe that the result of our efforts was that the long-term care profession was ultimately heralded for its work to keep seniors safe. While there was tremendous loss of life, leaving a gaping hole in the soul of many of these centers, there were many more residents who recovered from the virus, and some nursing homes provided important rehabilitation services for patients who were well enough to leave the hospital but not yet ready to go home.
LEADING AN EPIC JOURNEY
CLIENT: BOSTON-BASED ACADEMIC MEDICAL CENTER
The leadership of a large Boston teaching hospital had made the decision to convert its electronic medical record system to one developed by Epic, the fast-growing medical technology company known for its innovative product designed for the specific needs of each client.
A large-scale systems change affecting both inpatient and outpatient records had the potential to seriously disrupt hospital revenue if the “go-live” wasn’t executed well. As a result, staff members across the organization were fearful of the change and the level of training involved, and management was concerned about workflow changes that had the potential to disrupt even the most routine activities.
Internal communications were seen as central to the success of the transition, and Ball Consulting Group was engaged to design and execute a communications plan.
We created a plan with a comprehensive timeline that specified the timing of various plan tactics. We identified the communications vehicles we would use to keep staff updated, informed, and engaged. We also made recommendations about ancillary activities that would support the communications goal of the project.
We facilitated naming sessions where we led brainstorming and whiteboarding activities, soliciting ideas from the broad hospital community, and making recommendations for a unique hospital name for the new system.
We were embedded in the project management team, attending all meetings and reporting on progress relating to the communications goal. We created new tools to communicate with the diverse teams at the hospital, including a weekly communication to nursing staff and expanded “huddle cards,” which medical teams could use to relay quick bits of information about the project.
We also designed and implemented a memorable project kickoff with greetings from the CEO and Epic’s project leadership, videos and demonstrations, and a branded “stressball” with the newly chosen system name that incorporated both elements of humor and genuine stress reduction.
Hospital staff reported that they felt empowered as a result of the plan and our implementation of it. In surveys, staff stated that they felt adequately informed about upcoming changes and their roles and responsibilities with regard to that change.
Go-live occurred as scheduled in both the inpatient and outpatient departments and disruption was kept to a minimum.
RECIPE FOR NATIONAL NEWS COVERAGE
CLIENT: COMMUNITY SERVINGS, BOSTON, MA
A healthy, home-cooked meal takes planning and preparation. You need the proper ingredients and the right recipe for it to turn out well on the table. In many ways, that’s how we approached our engagement with Community Servings, a Boston-based nonprofit that makes medically tailored meals and delivers them to the chronically and critically ill.
The organization had been around for 29 years and would receive a dash of media coverage from time to time – mainly heartwarming features on their meal deliveries around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Community Servings always had the right ingredients for that type of coverage, but we were eager to mix up the recipe by leveraging the organization’s ongoing research studies, health care policy ambitions, unprecedented capital campaign and transformational building project.
Community Servings was poised to become the national model for medically tailored meals and a symbol of the growing “Food is Medicine” movement aimed at expanding funding for such programs – and we would help feed this story to the masses.
Following our engagement in February 2018, we immersed ourselves in Community Servings’ programs and connected with their people. We mapped out a media strategy for an upcoming research-related announcement: publication of a study in the journal Health Affairs that showed significant cost savings in the form of fewer ER visits and hospitalizations among medically tailored meal recipients.
We developed a press release for distribution on PR Newswire and aggressively pitched health care journalists at national publications, securing a feature story in STAT, the national health and medicine news site. The announcement resulted in more than a dozen other news stories in national trade and consumer publications, including Fierce Healthcare, Kaiser Health News, Los Angeles Times, Reuters and The Washington Post.
Within a few months, the Associated Press did a story focused on how health plans are starting to cover “social determinants of health” benefits such as medically tailored meals for certain high-need patient populations.
We leveraged this national coverage into a targeted pitch to a real estate reporter for The New York Times, shifting the angle to Community Servings’ plans for a major kitchen/headquarters expansion to support future growth in its meal programs. The journalist attended the organization’s groundbreaking ceremony in May 2018, which was attended by Boston’s mayor and other stakeholders, and her reporting resulted in a full-page “Square Feet” feature in the Times’ real estate section.
PREVENTING A CRISIS FROM COMPOUNDING
CLIENT: INTERNATIONAL ACADEMY OF COMPOUNDING PHARMACISTS
The New England Compounding Center (NECC) crisis began in Fall of 2012 with one or two isolated calls to the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists (IACP) from reporters wanting to learn more about compounding pharmacies. It seemed that there was a meningitis outbreak relating to a large compounding facility west of Boston, and that there were now patient deaths being reported.
Those early media calls led to a tidal wave of international media interest, as hundreds of patients took ill and deaths began to be reported by the CDC seemingly every day. As details emerged about unsafe practices at NECC and a lack of government oversight, journalists were demanding answers, soon to be followed by members of Congress.
IACP’s objective was clear: to educate the public about the compounding pharmacy profession and to demonstrate that the practices of NECC were in no way representative of the profession. A backlash that could have prevented patients from getting their medications and potentially put compounding pharmacists across the country out of business had to be stopped.
IACP engaged Ball Consulting Group, LLC, because of its deep experience in managing crises and familiarity with compounding pharmacy issues. We developed a strategy, created messages, issued statements, prepared IACP leaders for media interviews, and ensured that every media call would get a response.
The situation didn’t just contain one element of a crisis, it had virtually all of them: alleged violations of federal and state law; cover-ups and obstructed investigations; patient injuries and deaths; and investigators, prosecutors, and former employees ready to talk about the wanton disregard for professional standards and horrific safety violations that occurred there.
We also needed to remember at every turn that this was a national tragedy that took the lives of 64 good people – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – and that sickened almost 700. While the profession at large and its association were not to blame, we had to be very sensitive in everything that we said and did. The level of human suffering, not only by the victims but among the families that depended on them, was immense.
The strategy we developed enabled IACP to get a handle on the situation and ultimately prevented that feared backlash. While Congress did ultimately enact the Drug Quality and Security Act, the law identified a continued vital role for compounding pharmacy – a vast improvement over earlier dialogue around eliminating the practice of sterile compounding pharmacy altogether.
With the crisis under control, a second phase of the strategy involved a media tour that enabled IACP to educate the media and the public about the continued need for compounding and that emphasized the high quality work and rigorous standards currently in place.
IACP and its members have emerged from the cloud created by NECC. The organization has taken a position at the forefront of Congressional dialogue over implementation of the Drug Quality and Security Act, and the profession continues to enjoy significant growth.
UP FROM THE ASHES
CLIENT: LAKEVIEW PAVILION, FOXBOROUGH, MA.
The new Lakeview Pavilion rose from the ashes of a devastating fire that had destroyed the historic wedding venue in Foxborough, Mass., in 2014. The owners were knocked out of the hypercompetitive wedding business for 17 months while they rebuilt the facility. To be idle for so long put significant pressure and expectations on the grand reopening ceremony.
Because of results we had achieved previously for the owners, including immediately after the fire and the groundbreaking for their new facility, Lakeview again engaged Ball Consulting Group to let brides and grooms know they were back in business and better than before. And that was no cliché – the new Lakeview featured a modern design, two spacious ballrooms instead of one, and a facility well-equipped to cater weddings and host special events.
The owners’ specific objectives were to:
- Create a high-impact media event celebrating the new facility
- Increase awareness among prospective brides and grooms in Boston, southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island that they were fully up and running again.
We worked closely with our client in the lead-up to the event, giving them feedback on event logistics, revising their speeches so that they were just right for their celebratory, emotional delivery, and coordinating interviews.
Our media list included local and regional TV stations, newspapers and news sites, as well as wedding and bridal trade publications. The saturation strategy worked, with many impressive media results that contributed to a significant uptick in calls and bookings for Lakeview:
- Providence, R.I., TV station ABC6 aired a story nearly a month prior to the event, then returned to cover the event.
- Providence, R.I. TV stations WPRI-TV and NBC sent reporters to cover the event.
- Boston TV stations WCVB and NECN sent reporters to cover the event and WBZ and Fox 25 mentioned it during broadcasts.
- The Boston Globe published a “Build” feature, focused on Lakeview’s design and construction the morning of the event. The story ranked as the second most-read business story of the day and ran on BostonGlobe.com’s home page throughout the day.
- The Boston Globe also tweeted the story four times to its 401,000 followers.
- Globe South published an article on the facility’s reopening.
- The local paper, the Foxboro Reporter, ran a story in advance as well as a story covering the event.
- Boston Magazine’s separate “Weddings” publication and Rhode Island Monthly’s Engaged magazine blogged about the event afterwards, using our contributed photos.
- Three months after the event, The Knot, a quarterly wedding magazine and one of the top wedding brands, featured Lakeview in its “new and noteworthy” column in its New England issue.
- The Sun Chronicle, covering southern Massachusetts and northern Rhode Island, published multiple reports before and after the event.
- Another local newspaper and the local Patch site published our press release in full.
- The cable TV access show, “Foxborough Central,” taped the entire event and aired it multiple times for local viewers.
- The ethnic “Grecian Echoes” radio show mentioned the grand opening during the show.
DRAWING ATTENTION TO A BETTER PUBLIC HOUSING MODEL
CLIENT: WORCESTER HOUSING AUTHORITY
Public housing in Worcester, Mass., is similar to public housing everywhere in America. Rather than a short-term, stop-gap form of assistance for families in the midst of a crisis, it has become a permanent way of life, leading to a multi-generational cycle of poverty. The data is startling:
- Over 70% of residents are unemployed
- Some 40% of residents have no high school diploma or GED
- More than half of residents do not have a driver’s license
The fact is, those working with families living in Worcester public housing state that children growing up there are more likely to know somebody in jail than know a college graduate.
The Worcester Housing Authority launched A Better Life in 2011. The program requires that able-bodied tenants of state-funded public housing units work or go to school for continued tenancy in a Worcester Housing Authority unit. It seeks to help tenants of public housing by creating a pathway out of poverty and toward independence.
Funded by a grant from a local health foundation in Central Massachusetts, the Worcester Housing Authority engaged Ball Consulting Group in September, 2015. The intent was to build awareness of A Better Life nationally so that it could garner support from policy makers and serve as a model for housing authorities across the nation seeking to create similar programs.
Over the six months that we worked with the Worcester Housing Authority, we generated substantial results:
- Created an ongoing feature on The Huffington Post for Worcester Housing Authority executive director Ray Mariano, where he could communicate directly the merits of A Better Life, and we placed five posts on the site
- Wrote and placed an op-ed in Governing magazine
- Secured a feature story on the program in The Atlantic
- Successfully pitched a TV feature story to FOX 25 in Boston
- Created an opportunity for our client to appear on a public affairs radio program