Communication is key in post-merger marketing

Carondelet’s efforts still going after 18 months

Any health system that has undergone a merger knows the process doesn’t end when the papers were signed. Often, this is the beginning, as Mike Abell, MHA, MEd, FACHE, president and CEO of Carondelet Health System in Kansas City, MO, knows.

Among the things that have to be done after a merger to ensure it works, Abell says one of the most important is marketing the new entity. When St. Mary’s Hospital of Blue Springs merged with St. Joseph’s Health Center in Kansas City in February 1997, Abell had to find a way to tell two communities 26 miles apart that the merger was good news for them. He also had to sell the communities a new name, Carondelet Health System, while keeping the message positive internally.

Abell came from St. Joseph’s, where fairly good marketing efforts were under way. This included an advertising campaign, community relations programs, and outreach efforts. There was also a foundation that supports St. Joseph’s Health Center and several other community health clinics. "It was our arm into the community for social accountability," he explains.

With the merger, though, came immediate changes. "All of a sudden, we had a new name and an organization that was not recognizable in the community. We had spent years building knowledge in the community of who St. Joseph’s was. We had to start over."

One way they minimized the impact of the merger was for the two hospitals to retain their names. What changed were the other parts of the system — the physician practices, the home care agencies, the hospice, the pharmacy, and the long-term care facilities.

The first step, says Abell, was to commission a study on name recognition prior to the name change. The National Research Group of Lincoln, NE, handled that task. A follow-up is planned later this year to see how the change was received in the community.

Next, the external audience was informed of the changes through an extensive ad campaign. The ads featured the company mission statement and a list of the member organizations of Carondelet Health System. Television and radio advertisements were also part of the plan. Abell says that the marketing budget after the merger went from about $250,000 to $1.5 million.

Along with the advertisements, community outreach events were also part of the post-merger marketing efforts. To facilitate that, a charitable foundation was created for St. Mary’s Hospital. Whereas St. Joseph’s had a well-regarded foundation in place, St. Mary’s lacked.

A great deal of effort was expended getting the message out to staff, volunteers, and physicians. There was more than just the name change to relate, says Abell. There were also changes in benefits, compensation, and other human resources policies.

Town hall-style employee meetings were the focus of these communication efforts. Along with discussions on changes in policy and procedures, the meetings gave staff a chance to voice concerns and discuss the advantages of the merger. "We went through an extensive process of identifying the advantages and cost savings from the merger," he says. "We called those value propositions."

Getting the staff involved in the inception and discussion, Abell says, created a good buy-in for the merger.

Another internal marketing effort came from an internal weekly newsletter, Week to Week, in which the merger and its impact were constant topics. From just prior to the merger until long afterward, lead stories dealt with issues such as the name change, integration of systems, and frequently asked questions about the merger.

Abell also put together a 20-member communications team representing marketing, planning, senior management, and employee groups. The group was responsible for supplementing information that appeared in Week to Week as needed.

One of the problems Abell didn’t foresee as he established a single marketing effort were the cultural differences between the two communities. While only 26 miles apart, Blue Springs is much more rural than Kansas City. "That affects marketing," he says. In some ways, it eased his efforts. For instance, Abell could emphasize in Blue Springs the advantages a community gains from affiliation with a big-city institution — such as computer systems and data gathering — while still maintaining a small community hospital feel.

Internally, the advantages can also be emphasized, such as access to a bona fide marketing department — something new to St. Mary’s. On the other side, St. Mary’s excellent quality assurance program was implemented at St. Joseph’s. "When we had a success in that way, we praised it internally, and when it dictated, externally," says Abell. "We don’t hesitate to tell the community that the merger has saved about $6 to $10 million for the two entities."

Measuring the success of the program is still difficult. Although a survey is planned in the near future to gauge public opinion, most of the information Abell and his team has is anecdotal. "But we do know that there are some ways we can measure success. The managed care organizations are putting us in plans we didn’t have before, and members get more coverage than they had before. That is something we can take to the bank."

Fundraising success

Fundraising efforts are also showing signs of success. An annual golf event at St. Mary’s had a record turnout, as did a similar event at St. Joseph’s — and Abell credits part of that success to cross-participation.

The Carondelet name is much more recognizable, and patient satisfaction surveys currently in development will provide a concrete measure of what Abell believes is already self-evident. "We are getting that name out there, and there is much more acceptance of it," he says.

Internally, post-merger turnover was minimal, with only three senior management people leaving. "That’s a success right there," Abell says.

Communication has been the key to spreading the merger message, he adds. But he has learned some lessons he thinks are valuable. First, there are cultural differences evident in any merger. "You have to note those differences and remember not to force-feed your way of doing things onto another group," he says. "You can’t just expect everyone to embrace you and the way you do things."

Instead, concentrate on educating people and getting them involved in the changes that you implement. "Involvement equals buy-in," Abell adds. "If you ask John for a recommendation on something, you have bought him. You have said that he is important to you and that his input is valuable. Then John sees himself as part of Carondelet."

Getting community buy-in

Externally, you can take similar actions to get community buy-in. For instance, St. Joseph’s had a "Dear Neighbor" award for community members. By extending that program to the St. Mary’s population, Abell made them part of Carondelet.

"But you have to keep in mind that while communication is important, it takes more communication than you think to get the kind of buy-in you need from all the stakeholders. It requires a staying power that is unbelievable. You have to keep on communicating. We are still doing it, 18 months later. Every day, something comes up that we didn’t think of — whether it is what departments are closed on what holidays or when different people take vacation, something always arises."

For more details, contact Mike Abell, MHA, MEd, FACHE, President and CEO, Carondelet Health System, Kansas City, MO. Telephone: (816) 943-5623.