Cringeworthy conversations: 4 healthcare marketers sound off on language they find most annoying

The marketing teams within hospitals and health systems are faced with the tough task of making their organization appear as the top choice from which patients can receive care — a job with intricacies those who work outside of healthcare marketing may not fully understand.

Here, four hospital and health system marketing executives discuss the conversations they have found the most cringeworthy in 2020.

Editor’s note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Manny Rodriguez, chief marketing, experience and customer officer at UCHealth (Aurora, Colo.): Let’s start with “we.” In marketing, most healthcare organizations say “we” this and “we” that — they forget that they are in the business of “you.” These messages should be a conversation why we are here — because of our patients — not a theme about the healthcare system, as is so often the case. Why do all healthcare marketers feel the need to feature themselves and talk about themselves, to highlight how wonderful they are? It is about the person for whom we are caring. Let’s focus on who we are here to serve and their stories — not us.

Suzanne Hendery, chief marketing and customer officer at Renown Health (Reno, Nev.): The most cringe-worthy healthcare marketing conversations start this way: “Suzanne, no one knows we have a (fill in the blank with a hospital service line or program).” To which I always reply, “Why do you think that’s the case?” Then I hear that anecdotally the leader was in the company of someone who wasn’t aware we had it.

Once I am able to remind them of the specific audiences we are targeting for our messaging (those who have the need or potential to use that service), where they are and how we are reaching them (generally not through the daily newspaper), as well as show them the consumer confidence, awareness and market-share data of how well the program is performing and data on how that healthcare marketing has performed in terms of success metrics, we can usually turn the conversation around. The worst cringeworthy thing you can say to a healthcare marketer after all that is, “Well, that may be the case, but I think we need a billboard/print ad with a nice photo of those doctors.” Cringe!

Sandra Mackey, chief marketing officer at Bon Secours Mercy Health (Cincinnati): While this phrase is not often heard throughout Bon Secours Mercy Health, the most dreaded statement that truly makes me cringe in healthcare is, “We’ve always done it this way.” As consumer needs continue to evolve, so too does the way we engage with patients and consumers to deliver healthcare. Our response to a global pandemic taught healthcare systems valuable lessons about responding to consumer needs and operating with speed and agility to pivot and meet consumers where they are and in a way that makes sense to them. Consumer insights will help us drive tomorrow’s strategies. The notion of doing things the way we’ve always done them is a thing of the past.

Catherine Harrell, chief marketing officer at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System (Baton Rouge, La.): The most cringeworthy phrase is, “We just need to tell our story better.” Over time, I’ve learned to rein in my blood pressure with this one, as it’s usually well-intended and typically instead means,”I haven’t seen [myself, my specialty or insert topic] in news coverage or my friends aren’t talking to me about [me or insert topic].” 

Healthcare marketers are telling outstanding stories about their organizations and doing so through numerous channels for many different audiences, many of whom are now highly targeted. When I get this comment, probing to learn more or understand the need and point of pride is helpful and could reveal a new opportunity. Regularly managing up the earned media coverage summaries as well as the owned media performance are also good approaches to help inoculate against the storytelling skeptics. 

I believe those of us who work in healthcare have a tendency to be hyper-focused on these topics, either from our own organization or competitors. Meanwhile, everyone else is busy living their lives and managing the thousands of messages from everywhere that cross their paths. I can’t take “we need to tell our story better” personally. The immediate world doesn’t really care about the daily intricacies of our industry nearly as much as we do. Today our communication responsibility is to be relevant, compelling and appropriately present as we meet each individual where he or she is on a personal health journey. That’s always a story worth telling and hearing.

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