Marketing in a post-covid-19 world - Listen to our free podcast series with industry leading CMOs

Marketing Post-Covid: Julie Sheedy, Chief Marketing & Engagement Officer at Loretto

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing Podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world. Today’s guest is Julie Sheedy, Chief Marketing Officer at Loretto, a senior care provider that cares for more than 6,000 people across 20 locations. Julie, thanks so much for joining us today.

Julie Sheedy:
Good afternoon, it’s good to talk to you.

Brian Erickson:
Senior care has certainly been an interesting industry to be in over the last few months. And your facilities have had to take some extraordinary measures to keep your residents and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, obviously, and including a lockdown since March, which is largely still in effect. I imagine this requires a tremendous amount of communication between staff, residents, and their families. Could you just kind of take us through how that process has worked?

Julie Sheedy:
Absolutely. Communication was our number one priority, and I would list staff first or our employees, then families and residents, and then the community, that’s how we prioritized. At the start of this, especially with everybody on lockdown, it was hard to figure out how to keep people updated, so we used a number of different channels. Internally, we implemented several things right away, the senior leadership team started daily calls at 7:30 and even on the weekends. We had weekly manager calls every Monday, so that they could help us disseminate any updates down to the frontlines. We established an intranet site for all employees, so that they could get access to any of those meetings, the recordings, any other documentation that we posted, we did a lot of Q&As, and we had an extensive use of email and even text in our social channels, which were pivotal to us to staying in touch with the frontlines.

We also have an in-house TV system. So as you mentioned, we’re spread out across, actually 19 to 20 locations and it’s hard to make sure that everybody’s getting the same message, especially those frontline folks who really aren’t on computers during the day. So we use that TV system extensively, the monitors are displayed by our time clocks, they were another way to reinforce those consistent messages.

For families, our staff, of course, was in touch with them almost on a daily basis by phone, not just to keep them updated on their loved one, but to help connect them to their loved one, to have regular calls, FaceTime calls, those kinds of things. We supplemented that with letters and emails, we established a dedicated website early on for families, and then added a password protected area midway through the pandemic. As the regulatory communications requirements were changing constantly, and we had to start to provide access to other data for those family members. And then we worked really closely with the media for the community. So those are just some of the things that we did right away, to really make sure we were staying in touch and getting a constant, consistent message to all of our key audiences.

Brian Erickson:
Did you have a lot of these systems and platforms in place going into this, or was this all ramped up, turn on a dime sort of react to the situation?

Julie Sheedy:
I would say it was a mix of both. We had some broadcasting techs capabilities, we were very cautious with how we were using them prior to COVID, but they became truly a lifeline, especially to our frontline employees. Our social channels were really the way to stay in touch with both our community, but also our employees, we set up a dedicated employee Facebook group.

I think one of the other challenges was family members. You would hope that everybody has an email message, but it really wasn’t a part of our mandatory data that we collect, especially with the way that we turn over residents with admissions and discharges, that data was changing constantly, but we put a hyper focus on getting that information early on because we knew it would be critical for us in staying in touch with the families. The only other option we really had was to mail letters and you know the delays on that, so that was one change that we feel we made for the better that’s going to help us when we kind of come out of COVID.

Brian Erickson:
Obviously, COVID has affected many industries and I think you’re definitely at the top of the list in terms of impact. How has the pandemic changed the way that you communicate about your brand and conduct marketing outreach? And I mean that specifically, from the angle of growth, right? The lifeblood of any business. Have you focused on growth at this time? If so, how have you managed to walk that line of being sensitive, and also still try to get folks to pay attention, and to come into the facilities?

Julie Sheedy:
Growth is always important to us. But of course during COVID when things were shut down and you’re shut down to visitation, and hospitals are focused on treating COVID patients, people aren’t getting discharged at hospital and going into nursing homes, so I would look at it a little bit differently. We felt it was very important from the very beginning to be very transparent, which would help us maintain a strong reputation in the marketplace and earn the respect of our families and staff, as well as continue with constant and consistent communication.

We made sure we were visible, we wanted to position ourselves as the leader, we were honest in the way things were happening, we didn’t shy away from the media or from family questions, but we also took very aggressive measures in early March to lock down all of our facilities, and it was painful. We took a couple hits even from the media, but I think it was one of the keys to success for us in keeping the numbers so incredibly low in our system. We really only had less than 1% of positives across our system compared to others in our marketplace, and we are essentially three times the size of all of our other competitors.

Brian Erickson:
That’s really fantastic, I mean that certainly no small feat. On a tactical level, how has your own marketing mix and the channels that you used to communicate change during the pandemic, maybe on a more granular level from how you might’ve gone into 2020, planning your mix?

Julie Sheedy:
I’d say a couple of things. So I think one of the things that shifted extensively for us was really a greater commitment and utilization of our public media, and when I say transparent and being responsive, that also applied to the media. Every inquiry that we received, we responded to and I think that earned us a lot of respect with our local media and earned us some street cred. I must’ve conducted 50 interviews myself, I think our latest report was over 500 mentions in the media, mainly positive, but it also then in turn enabled us to feed positive news and positive video of residents still doing okay while behind our doors and a lot of those ended up getting published, which really supported and helped people seeing us as a leader in the community, so I think that was very important.

We backed way off on advertising for a couple of reasons, just controlling costs because our costs were astronomical through this whole pandemic between PPE expenses and even employee mandatory testing, it’s really taken a hit to our bottom line. We also knew people were watching television or they’re on the internet. So that’s really where we focused our energies, both in our social channels, in our PR efforts, in our media relations.

And I think from the internal standpoint, again, as I mentioned, you’re talking about 65% of our employees are on the frontlines, they’re not on computers everyday like other people are, in their offices, they’re not Zooming, so how do we keep them up to date? And social became a linchpin for us with that, I would say 70% of our employees joined our employee Facebook group. And we received positive comments on how often we were communicating with them, we supplemented that with email, and we also use texting to our advantage very strategically, which we weren’t really sure how that would work out, but it was used intentionally in certain cases, we used it to survey employees when we know they were struggling with needs for childcare for example, it’s our way of communicating when we have testing days and reminding people of testing. So those are really newer channels that we have exploited to our advantage through this whole pandemic.

Brian Erickson:
That’s really tremendous. I’m sure you’ve gotten a lot of sleep over the last few months.

Julie Sheedy:
I think finally. Just my day-to-day changed, I think. We started our calls before 7:30 in the morning, seven days a week for three months and it was fully focused on COVID. We are a diverse system, so we’re regulated both by the state and the county health departments for different pieces of our business. So in addition, as a practitioner, I was constantly online making sure that I was up to speed on what was being said at the county level and at the state level by Governor Cuomo, and our county executive to know just what was happening outside our walls and how that impacted us, and keeping on top of all the regulatory changes at the same time and that led to even more frequent communications at times.

Brian Erickson:
And for everybody listening, you weren’t somewhere where this was a minor concern, you were really in the epicenter when this hit the fan and nobody really knew what to expect, right? Location-wise?

Julie Sheedy:
That’s exactly right. We’re in New York State and we’re three hours out of New York City, things are constantly changing. A lot of the media attention, the beginning was focused on the hospitals, the nursing homes were in the shadows, and then as the numbers started creeping up and there were more stories about what was happening in nursing homes downstate, then the spotlight was on us and hyper focused, so that drove a different level of engagement for us, especially with the media. And we also were really proactive about getting our CEO out there, she did some interviews, we’ve done lessons learned, virtual speaking engagements already for many others, even in our own community and across the industry, and I think that earns us some credibility as well.

Brian Erickson:
I mean, it was just such a rapid shift to the spotlight, I’m sure. You’re not in an industry that’s typically the focus of all media attention all at once, right? So I’m sure that was quite an adventure.

So you mentioned a number of different tactics that you’ve brought into your mix and really became linchpins as you put it in this whole process. What’s going to come next, when it comes to the ways that patients interact with healthcare brands to anticipate a return to pre-COVID reality or a new normal that incorporates some of your recent experiences and kind of reshapes the way that you communicate?

Julie Sheedy:
I think we learned a lot through this process and I think we, again, earned some points with our audiences, we continue to hear both from our families and our employees that this was such an important piece of getting through this pandemic, having such constant, consistent communication, that will become the norm for us. We’ll eliminate some of those old traditional things like an employee monthly newsletter and use these newer channels, very strategically going forward.

One of the things I think that’s really important is recognizing who all of your audiences are and keeping them all up to date. We have five boards that support us, so any information we sent out to employees later that day also went to all of our boards, so they were kept up to date. And they were, in many ways, our mouthpiece out in the community while we were indoors, still caring for residents here. So I think you’ve got to make sure you don’t lose sight of all of your critical audiences.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah. I’m sure there were quite a few folks that were in need of constant communication and each of those messages had to be different and of course, timely. So for other folks that are in unprecedented situations that we might not even be able to imagine right now, but ones that require fast response, what advice would you give to marketers in terms of making a messaging pivot, to adapt to changing conditions while staying true to their core brand promise?

Julie Sheedy:
Yeah. I can tell you life changed overnight for me as a marketer, I think 120% of my focus went right to internal and external communications versus marketing campaigns and events and things like that. I think as a practitioner, you have to be nimble, also anticipate what’s coming next and be prepared, that was the benefit of listening to some of the daily conferences, because you can anticipate what questions are coming. I can tell you I was writing communications faster than I ever have in my life. I was fortunate that my peers and my CEO trusted me, I wasn’t in a situation where I had to jump through hoops, through 20 approvals. I think it’s critical to be able to craft the right message and be able to reuse them. So it’s not just to save time, but the importance of consistency and knowing what are those few talking points that should be reinforced all the time.

For us, it was infection control. We’re doing everything we can to protect the safety and security of our residents and our staff. You have to know the value of each of those channels and approach them appropriately, it’s not a one size fits all for those messages. And I think we also opened it up early on to our employees as well to ask questions and we’re very responsive to that. And that even helped us feed in talking points for others who might be talking to family members themselves or the media and things like that.

Brian Erickson:
So obviously you were in very high demand throughout all of this and continue to be. Unfortunately, folks in other industries as we’re facing potentially record-breaking unemployment, may find themselves as free agents right now. What advice would you give to marketers and digital experts who find themselves in the job market? How can folks best position themselves in their skillsets for this moment? And in terms of something that you would look for to hire in this sort of environment, what are the skills that are really important to focus on and emphasize?

Julie Sheedy:
It’s an interesting question. I’d say two things and it’s kind of to my previous response. I think you need to have excellent writing skills at your core, and understand how to best utilize those audiences and also understand your audiences really well, and be able to demonstrate that to a senior marketer like myself. If anything, this has proven that the dynamics could change immediately for a marketer and the shift, as I said, to media relations or internal communications was just immediate and drastic at that point. So if you’re really specialized and all you do is social media, I think you might struggle if you don’t have an appreciation or an understanding of how that works in conjunction with other forms of communication, it’s never a one size fits all.

It was interesting for us, it’s the simple things that we learned. You would think that email communications are obvious, but in our environment, we have 90-year-old residents who have 70-year-old children and they’re not on email. So how do I make sure that family member is reassured and gets the message that I’m trying to send out about how their loved one is doing? I can’t just drop an email, so I think understanding of the message. And if you’re looking for a position, make sure you make the connections to what you’ve learned through this process and how you can apply that to any new situation, especially in a world where we’re going to be facing a very virtual workforce for a long time. We won’t have the benefit of being face-to-face to do simple things like read body language. I think it’s really honing in, on those core skills, and showing your diversity, and your flexibility to be able to manage across those different channels.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely a lot of new challenges all at once. So if you could give one piece of advice to mid-market and maybe smaller senior care providers that are hopefully coming up on reopening and looking to create engagement and bring in new residents, what would you say is most important to focus on over the next, let’s call it three, six, 12 months as we try to rebuild trust?

Julie Sheedy:
I think what’s important is to prioritize your audiences, speak to your strength during and after this crisis, and address the challenges head on, and communicate what you’re doing about it. Be transparent. We saw a lot of providers shy away from the media, not respond to the media and not communicate with families, and that really harmed reputations. And I think for us, because we were so transparent and responsive, we’re really emerging as more of a provider than we ever have before, which I think is really important and it’s boosted our reputation.

No one could have predicted this, our industry especially has been an underdog for a long time, even PPE went to hospitals first as its staffing resources. In many ways it was a no-win situation, but you can’t place blame, or you need to focus on the positives as much as you can, but answer questions fairly and then explain what you’re doing differently to enhance the safety and security residents and staff, and then I think find some advocates who support your story. We’ve heard from a lot of family members who, well, it’s hard for them not to see their loved one, it’s going on over four and a half months, honestly. They’re appreciative that they’ve still had some connection, and that we have answered their questions to the best of our ability, and provided them access to important information, and I think that’s what I’d recommend to the providers. And no one could keep it completely outside their doors, it’s a tricky virus and no matter what anybody’s done with infection control, it’s still out there and we don’t know enough about it, but just focus on the message and be responsive to your audiences.

Brian Erickson:
Well, Julie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. And thank you to everyone on your staff and on your larger team there, healthcare heroes, really dealing with one of the highest risk populations. So thank you and your team for all the work that you’ve done throughout this pandemic.

Julie Sheedy:
Thank you Brian, I appreciate it. I think we learned the most from our staff, honestly, and their resilience. And we’re so proud of that and the commitment that they’ve had to us and it’s really been eye opening. And I think it’s also really changed the dynamic for us to the positive, even from an employee perspective, that everybody’s really bonded together to really be committed to providing great care.

Brian Erickson:
Well, that’s fantastic to hear that there is some silver lining there. So thank you for listening. This is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Please make sure to check back for more senior marketers, sharing their perspectives on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world.

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