By Annie Alley

This is What Thought Leadership Looks Like

In the wee hours of a recent Wednesday, we spotted a high-profile opportunity for behavioral healthcare provider Compass Health to publicly fulfill its mission of destigmatizing mental illness. By the following Sunday, our Everett, Wash.-based client was the feature editorial in its city’s most-read publication.

How does this type of thought leadership happen?

As the organization’s op-ed published in The Herald demonstrates, it happens over years, over months and overnight – first by doing the hard work that forms trust, expertise and credibility, and then by mapping messaging platforms, building relationships and seizing opportunities with agility and courage.

Substantive Thought Leadership Platforms

There’s no doubt that Compass Health knows its stuff. Northwest Washington’s behavioral healthcare leader celebrated its 115th anniversary this year, and its 750+ team members provide everything from mental health counseling to crisis services, affordable housing to summer camps and community training programs for around 22,000 adults and youth annually.

Since F+A began working with the nonprofit nearly two years ago, visibility of its exceptional work has increased significantly, including through regional and national media coverage, speaking at a TEDx conference, and building new social media channels to engage with its stakeholders.

Early on, our partnership with Compass Health focused on prioritizing and defining the areas where it must lead the way, including:

  • Serving as a go-to resource for the media and community members.
  • Demystifying and correcting misperceptions about behavioral and mental health, which also ties directly to the nonprofit’s mission statement.
  • Introducing and delivering on the latest innovative models within behavioral healthcare, including Mental Health First Aid, a global movement to improve mental health awareness and provide the skills to empower people to help their friends and neighbors.

Building Relationships with Media

Once we collectively defined Compass Health’s focus areas, we launched a series of deskside briefings for the organization’s engaging CEO, Tom Sebastian, to meet with key editors and reporters in the communities the organization serves – including Jon Bauer, editorial page editor of The Herald.

In addition to making a personal connection and learning how Compass Health can best serve as a source, we used the meetings to provide high-level context for the organization’s initiatives to build on when sharing newsworthy announcements.

Identifying and Seizing the Opportunity

That foundation allowed the op-ed to materialize in less than 24 hours:

  • At around 7 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, our media monitoring systems flagged a letter to the editor written by a Snohomish resident and published by The Herald. It criticized a recent syndicated parenting column that dramatically simplified complex issues around youth mental health conditions, perpetuated misinformation and misplaced blame on modern parenting. The letter suggested Compass Health as one of several local resources better-suited to provide accurate information on mental health solutions.
  • By 10:30 that morning, our client team – including Tom Sebastian, the CEO, and the chief development and communications officer – had signed off on our suggestion to submit an op-ed shedding light on the truth around youth mental health conditions and publicly thanking the concerned community member.
  • Within an hour, we’d connected with Jon Bauer, The Herald’s editor, who welcomed a submission from Compass Health.
  • By 5:30 that night, Compass Health’s leadership and communications team was circulating and reviewing the draft op-ed, which drew on thought leadership key messaging, corrected misperceptions and pointed readers to resources for Compass Health’s youth Mental Health First Aid training.

We finalized and submitted the piece the next day, garnering nearly immediate editorial acceptance. The editorial team held it for Sunday publication – the largest circulation of the week – and noted that it would discontinue publication of the syndicated parenting column that caused the original offense.

Meaningfully, Compass Health has received positive feedback from several community members, including the author of the letter to the editor, who wrote to thank the organization for speaking out and for its dedication to the community.

Altogether, the op-ed exemplifies how and what it means to be a thought leader – serving as a trusted source who speaks with authority, credibility and inspiration in service of stakeholders.

Read Compass Health’s op-ed in The Herald here, along with the letter to the editor (paywall).

By Keena Bean

Lessons from the Trenches: Communicating to the Concerned

There’s nothing quite like a health care crisis to catch the attention of the media, and the general public. Health care organizations receive much more scrutiny in a crisis than your average company, and rightly so. Unlike a labor dispute at McDonalds or improperly used funds within a nonprofit, health care crises can literally be matters of life and death for patients and the public.

In responding to these crises, health care organizations need to first recognize that their constituents aren’t just angry, they’re concerned.

One of our specialties at Firmani + Associates is crisis communications, and with multiple regional health care providers as clients, we know very well the fear that can quickly crop up within a community.

So what do we do to ease people’s fears and guide our client through the negative attention?

Anticipate the news hook and get ahead of it. Take charge of the story and tell it in your own words. Even if you’ve got nothing but bad news, it will still sound better coming from you than the nightly news anchor. Be transparent with what you know at every step of the way – it will take the sting out of unexpected negative coverage and show the public that you’re not hiding from hard facts. It may feel like you’re adding unnecessary fuel to the fire, but it’s better to contain it yourself than let it get out of control by someone else’s hands.

Know your audiences and speak directly to them. You are going to have multiple audiences in any given health care crisis scenario. Staff need to know what to say to concerned patients, vendors and stakeholders need to know that this won’t hurt their business, and most importantly, patients and families need to know that they’re safe.

Address each audience individually, and do it in their language. Communicating directly to patients and families doesn’t serve its purpose if they can’t read through the industry jargon. These communications need to exude endless compassion, empathy and honesty. And include an offline contact where they can reach out to you directly for more information. In addition to building more trust between you and the patients and families, it lessens the chance that they will take their concerns directly to the media or message boards.

Get your priorities straight. A patient or family member should never learn about a problem with their health care provider through the news. As health care communicators, we need to remember who our most important audience is and temper our urgency in responding to media with patience and respect for those we serve.

Health care providers are held to a much higher standard than those in other industries because we put our trust in them when we are at our most vulnerable. Showing a little transparency, honesty and vulnerability as the provider can go a long way in return.

This is What Thought Leadership Looks Like
Lessons from the Trenches: Communicating to the Concerned