With mergers between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals coming under increased public scrutiny, the Catholic Health Association is helping its members put their spin on the sometimes controversial deals.
The CHA has released a new communications guide that includes tips on coping with the public relations nightmare that can ensue when communities oppose mergers that might threaten reproductive services.
The guide, Telling Your Story: A Communications Resource for Catholic Healthcare, is a collection of media, political and community relations strategies for hospitals and systems at any stage of merger discussions. It is available to CHA member institutions.
The guide aims to help CHA members strengthen community support for Catholic healthcare and respond to "organized challenges to the future of the Catholic healthcare ministry."
In the past few years, some mergers of Catholic hospitals with non-Catholic facilities have come under scrutiny. In some cases, for instance, local communities and activists have opposed the deals because they can reduce the availability of reproductive services.
The guide is "in response to both the experience and the needs of members," says the Rev. Michael Place, president and chief executive officer of the CHA, which represents about 1,200 Catholic healthcare providers.
Place says the CHA guide isn't about "spinning" the story of Catholic healthcare.
"It's not that we are taking something and making something it's not," Place says. "The idea is to be candid and straightforward about who we are. It's not spinning, but telling."
The CHA developed the guide with the help of a nine-member advisory group, which included communications experts from Catholic healthcare systems and organizations around the country, and from findings of CHA-sponsored focus groups.
A key discovery from the focus groups was that people believe Catholic hospitals "have lost their caring, religious focus. They think Catholic hospitals are just as business-oriented as any other hospital," according to the guide.
While the CHA guide doesn't offer hospitals a "silver bullet" to counter opposition to their mergers, it does give advice about refining public statements, rebutting bad information and being assertive in telling communities about the benefits of a proposed merger.
Regarding the prickly issue of reproductive services, the guide suggests that hospitals use women as spokespeople because "they might have more credibility in addressing access to reproductive services."
The guide's authors specifically discourage using lawyers as spokespeople because they are "often perceived as gatekeepers of information and tend to arouse suspicion."
Partnering facilities should hold joint press conferences because "this allows you to control the flow of information," according to the handbook.
But hospitals also need a plan to acknowledge merger issues that still need to be resolved.
"Controversial ones will come out anyway," the guide states.
Albany, N.Y.-based MergerWatch monitors Catholic with non-Catholic mergers for their effect on women's services. Lois Uttley, the group's director, says community groups concerned about a proposed merger want to get straight answers from the partnering facilities.
"Be honest, don't be evasive about what the impact will be on local health services," Uttley says.
All too often, Uttley says, communities must try to decipher the impact on their own when the partnering hospitals don't spell it out.
"The worst thing merging hospitals can do is shut out the community," Uttley says. "The second worst thing they can do is hire an expensive PR firm to attempt some sophisticated spin of the story that fails to address the real concerns the communities have."
The CHA guide also suggests encouraging merging hospitals to remind people about the continued availability of contraception and sterilization services in the community, even if the merged Catholic facility won't provide them.
"No hospital in the United States offers all healthcare services, and neither will these after the affiliation," reads a sample message hospitals can use when talking about their merger.
But rather than focusing on what they don't do, the guide states, Catholic facilities need to make clear what they do offer.
Hospitals should focus on their community health mission and talk about care for the vulnerable, the well-being of children and the health of the community.
But Catholic sponsors of healthcare facilities haven't tooted their own horns much, preferring instead to do their work with little fanfare, says Patrick Cacchione, vice president of advocacy and communications at Carondelet Health System in St. Louis.
However, times are changing.
"Now, we are being forced by the current environment to tell our story," he says.