How Mount Sinai Health System Transformed its Marketing and Communications Effort

Dorie Klissas and Leonard Achan
Marketing Health Services
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Key Takeaways

​What? The various departments within the Mount Sinai Health System were sending out uncoordinated and individualized messages that lacked unity.

So what? The system undertook a 360-degree marketing effort to better unify.

Now what? Organizations with varying messages should unify communications, minimize expenses via creativity, build specialization to respond to media, proactively pitch and tap brainpower in the organization, among other efforts.

​Nov. 16, 2016

In the age of digital communications it is all too common and easy for large organizations to find themselves with a multiplicity of voices broadcasting divergent messages.

Mount Sinai Health System was in such a predicament five years ago when various departments within the system were transmitting individualized, uncoordinated messages by creating their own web pages, engaging in personalized social media campaigns, and even customizing the Mount Sinai logo to their liking. The Health System was suffering from a mishmash of marketing.

To achieve unity of voice and optimize marketing, organizations need to do more than merely centralize communications, far more. A hands-on, proactive effort to manage every aspect of marketing is necessary to build an effective, 360-degree marketing machine. Following are the best practices we employed to transform Mount Sinai Health System’s communications and marketing effort.

Unify Communications

The website issue was emblematic of our marketing challenge. Too many cooks across the Mount Sinai Health System were preparing their own communications recipes by building and maintaining departmental or even individual microsites. So we corralled all the chefs into one kitchen. That meant integrating the relatively new digital and social media group into the marketing and communications department so that digital would work in concert with our branding and media efforts. In doing so, we made clear our commitment to establishing a digital footprint that would unify the look, feel and messaging of all Mount Sinai communications.

It was clear the website required an overhaul, leading to a commitment to redesign and relaunch the site within six months. Lacking the budget to hire a major web development firm, we turned to Mount Sinai’s internal technology staff, which successfully unified the site’s look and feel. Our own developers created an in-house content management system and transformed the site to be mobile-friendly. But consolidating the content was still a work-in-progress.

To ensure brand consistency and vibrancy, we engaged in a rebranding, clearly defining our brand platform, including mission, vision, brand promise, brand positioning and values. The entire platform and detailed supporting guidelines were shared across the health system so that Mount Sinai would speak with a unified voice. We also unveiled a new logo that captured the forward momentum of the institution, which was to be used, unaltered, by every department in the health system.

These steps proved invaluable as Mount Sinai shortly thereafter initiated a merger with Continuum Health Partners, which ran five separate hospitals in New York City, to create the largest health care system in New York. Now our task was to unify the two organizations, particularly through integrating communications and marketing, again to ensure consistency. Upon the merger, Mount Sinai and Continuum had a total of 110 microsites containing 100,000 pages of content, including a substantial amount of outdated material from Continuum. We engaged in a massive editing project to purge, merge and better serve our online visitors. We’ve continued to upgrade the site. Most recently, this spring, we updated the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai website to a state-of-the-art design, and this summer we are planning to do the same for the Mount Sinai Health System site. 

Minimize Expenses with Creative Approaches; Do it In-House

Our relatively modest budget challenged us to do more with less. To create content for the upgraded website, as well as marketing collateral, we built an in-house content studio, essentially a startup marketing and digital communications agency within the hospital system. As our communications team members produce content for the site, they collaborate with our digital experts to ensure it is all optimized. The in-house agency is able to generate great cost efficiencies, for example, our own staff of artists creates infographics for a fraction of the cost of hiring a production studio. To date, we have produced more than 70 infographics that provide practical insights into diseases, procedures and health care issues. Many of those infographics have become hugely popular online, some going viral across the web. Our “Cancer-Proof Your Home” infographic, which shows how to lower carcinogen exposure in homes, has reached more than a quarter of a million people.

Rather than hiring vendors to produce costly videos, we purchased our own video cameras for $300 each and lent them to interns from local New York City film schools to create video content for us. We built our own video studio, at a cost of just $20,000, eliminating the need for production at a professional studio. This has allowed Mount Sinai to aggressively expand its catalogue of expert and patient videos that are shot in the studio or in the field and then edited. The videos are then shared throughout Mount Sinai’s entire digital and social media landscape.

Build Specialization for Rapid Response to the Media

To maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of our communications team, we employed a newsroom model, assigning beats to each staffer, a best practice for a large organization. Previously, all members of the communications team functioned as generalists, which meant they had less familiarity with specific departments, doctors and research projects at our medical school. Media inquiries would be assigned, then researched, slowing our response time to journalists. Under our beat system, each communications expert is now “embedded” with a department, attending staff meetings and holding regularly scheduled discussions with department heads. When a media request comes in, the specialist in each department promptly handles it, equipped with the expertise, relationships and direct access that allow for rapid response, the speed of which often determines whether or not an organization is quoted or cited by a reporter on tight deadline.

Because journalists need good characters to tell compelling stories, our media specialists are constantly searching for interesting patients. Doctors will ask if they are willing to share their stories, and if agreeable, we will have them sign a HIPAA release form. At that point, a Mount Sinai media specialist will serve as a patient’s personal press representative.

Proactive Pitching

In addition to responding to media requests, communications team members write succinct news releases and proactively pitch stories to reporters on their beat, including results of our original research. A recent Mount Sinai study revealed significant discrepancies between cholesterol test results at laboratory company Theranos Inc. and its larger competitors, which became a major national story, illustrating the benefits of our shift from being primarily a reactive communications team to highly proactive.

During major news events, this more aggressive approach is particularly beneficial. In June, 2012, anticipating the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act, we created an advisory for the media with the thoughts of our CEO, Dr. Kenneth Davis, sharing it with reporters on the morning of the ruling, which generated an influx of media requests. Our leaders shared the same message through the day with more than two dozen reporters, resulting in significant attention for Mount Sinai.

Four months later, during Hurricane Sandy, dozens of patients, including expectant mothers, were transferred from affected hospitals to Mount Sinai. Through the storm we remained at the hospital, providing journalists with critical information, as well as lighter stories about each baby born during the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. We invited CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” program to tour our neonatal intensive care unit. Dr. Sanjay Gupta came with his crew to shoot the segment and featured an interview with Dr. Davis. Soon after, ABCNews.com arrived to report on our preparations for the hurricane. The media attention positioned Mount Sinai as an institution well-prepared to confront a crisis with Dr. Davis at the helm.

At the height of the media’s interest in the Ebola virus, Mount Sinai again was at the center of the news when we assiduously prepared to treat Ebola patients and even cared for a patient with suspected Ebola, though he later tested negative. Our communications effort was dedicated to educating and calming the public, which included interviews with Dr. Davis on CNN, MSNBC and PBS, which shot a behind-the-scenes look at our Ebola treatment units. Dr. Davis also penned an article with the president of the Greater New York Hospital Association for Roll Call, asking the federal government to support government funding to fight the disease.

By taking a proactive approach to media relations and significantly increasing the number of press releases we write and issue, we have generated a dramatic increase in news stories mentioning Mount Sinai: from 5,000 in 2011 to 14,300 in 2012 (+189%) and from 51,493 in 2014 to 65,770 in 2015 (+27%). 

Prudence and Practicality in Social Media

We built our social media team from scratch because in 2011 there was no organized Mount Sinai social media campaign. To lead the effort, we hired a lawyer, an unconventional choice, but it made sense for a health care provider because we operate under strict regulations, and it is imperative to protect patient privacy. He began by writing a best practices manual, which included a requirement that all social media be written carefully in advance of being shared. In fact, all those who are active on social media on behalf of Mount Sinai must first undergo social media training, a rule that extends to marketing managers who wish to tweet from medical conferences.

Communicating cautiously on social media has not limited Mount Sinai’s online engagement. Output from the organization’s traditional media flows directly to our social and digital media teams, and each message, be it news or health tips, is packaged for the appropriate audience through the right vehicle or channel. All copy is optimized incorporating keywords, tags and appropriate URLS.

Social media campaigns are aimed at providing health tips, increasing awareness of disease risks, particularly for conditions such as skin cancer and diabetes, sharing patients’ inspiring stories, and communicating information about doctors. The health system actively participates in more than 100 social media channels, including Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Periscope and YouTube, and it has found them to be essential tools for engaging with our audiences, especially for conveying essential information during crises. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Mount Sinai created a storm hub online that included health and safety tips, live updates, emergency contact information and other resources on 12 social media channels. On Twitter, Mount Sinai medical experts engage in chats to answer questions from members of the public. We also listen carefully to what patients, their family members, students and staff say about the institution online, immediately responding to negative comments. 

 

 Mount Sinai YouTube

 


The return on investment is all measured in views, followers, likes and shares. Mount Sinai uses Hootsuite, Google Analytics, Facebook Insights and Twitalyzer to track and measure ROI by assessing our subscriber base, reach, audience engagement, interactions with influential users and effectiveness of campaigns and individual posts on all social media channels. For Mount Sinai, the effort has been well worthwhile, as it has been ranked one of the most social media-friendly hospitals in the nation.[i][ii]

Tap Brainpower for Original Thought Leadership

Strong thought leadership is among the most powerful vehicles for elevating an institution’s reputation. Today, there are more opportunities than ever for organizations with big thinkers, original research and valuable information to burnish their reputations through thought leadership articles. Our CEO shares his insights through commentary articles in leading publications, frequent appearances on CNBC and other broadcast networks, as well as participation in the Aspen Ideas Festival, all of which are promoted through our website and social media channels. Mount Sinai medical experts write for our blogs—one for Medicine Matters, stories on wellness, collaboration and innovation—and another called HealthBytes, which focuses on consumer news. 

We are also committed to content development for other sites. With the help of our marketing team, our experts also write blogs for the Huffington Post, New York Daily News.com and the Eastern Tennis Association.

Advertise Last

With our communications gears in motion, a unified brand message, robust website and engaging social media presence, all backed by a smoothly operating communications apparatus, we were prepared to unveil a major advertising campaign. Without those gears moving properly, traditional advertising would not have been an effective use of funds. After all, if you’re drawing people to your brand, they should find a fully satisfying experience upon engaging with it. Before the merger with Continuum in 2012, we spent some advertising dollars on digital ads for USNews.com and NYDailynews.com. But one year after the merger with Continuum Health, in July 2015, we initiated an advertising campaign, featuring large print ads in The New York Times to share our story with patients, physicians and policymakers. In January of 2016, we launched a local and national television campaign. We viewed the campaign as the crowning element of a 360-degree multi-channel marketing effort, in which the health system has promoted its brand across many digital and traditional channels while ensuring that the message is consistent throughout.


Author Bio:

 
Dorie Klissas and Leonard Achan
Dorie Klissas is vice president of marketing and communications for Mount Sinai Health System in NYC and associate dean of marketing and communications for the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Leonard Achan is the former chief communications officer of the Mount Sinai Health System in NYC.
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