Bring It to Market: Lessons from Emory Healthcare’s Amy Comeau

cmo insights kyle porter

Bring It to Market is a bi-weekly series at Hype, where we share marketing advice from top Chief Marketing Officers.

Amy Comeau, Corporate Director for Marketing at Emory Healthcare, was hit with an unexpected crisis only a few weeks into her job — the very first Ebola patients arriving in the U.S. As any good communicator would, she went straight into crisis mode, collaborating with colleagues to unify their message and mobilize quickly as the news broke.

“It was a call that I will never forget. It launched us into really quite a journey for Emory Healthcare, a really wonderful experience that had very good outcomes, but certainly was something that I certainly did launch into just barely weeks after being named into my role.”

She oversees one of the largest healthcare systems in Georgia and the only one to integrate an academic healthcare network for the state. But what are the keys to successful crisis communications? How do you unify your message across the organization while also handling unknowns? Comeau shares the following CMO takeaways.

Create a decentralized team

“One of the keys to success for us is that at Emory our marketing, PR, and communications are actually decentralized. My team handles all the external marketing. I have a colleague, a peer, who handles internal communications and another peer who handles PR and public relations. What was key is that we had internal meetings leading up to the arrival of the Ebola patients where we were very clear on what roles each one of us played. Having that collegiality and unspoken norms among the three of us really helped us mobilize when we were in this crisis situation.”

Nurture professional relationships

“Make sure that you know your PR, communications, and marketing colleagues. Build those relationships with your colleagues now so that should a crisis or high-profile communication occur in your organization, that you’re not waiting until that point in time to build those relationships and protocols.”

Alert your internal audience first

“The last thing you want is for your own employees to hear about it in the media, or now social media, first. We needed to come together very quickly to align on messaging and what we called the message hygiene so that we’re all very specific on what the messages are that we’re putting out, who’s putting what out when, and that we’re cascading those appropriately to each of our audiences. It was internal first, then the media, then we’d post on social media. Having that tight-knit relationship with your PR, marketing, communications colleagues is crucial.”

Have a (crisis) plan in place

“We were well prepared as an organization. [Our internal teams] had been practicing, literally practicing and doing drills on this isolation unit for over a decade, being prepared for just this type of situation. Their efforts and their long-term efforts towards treating patients like these or similar patients like these really made our job easy. They were very tightly coordinated. They were very collaborative. Our team was very collaborative with us on approving the right messaging to be going out and the correct content, because in this situation, there is so much misinformation that was spreading like wild as you may recall.”

Create guardrails on who handles the message

“It goes back to that message hygiene. We were very specific about talking about what was happening at Emory, how our isolation unit worked, what our protocols were. The public health portion of Ebola, that was the CDC’s realm. We internally, in high collaboration with them, discussed who was going to handle what topics. Of course, their being here, right down the street from us, only added to the ease of collaboration.”

Fight fear with facts

“When you have a crisis, the best thing you can do instead of getting defensive is just to keep pushing out the facts about what’s happening. For us that really helped turn the tide of positive sentiment during the Ebola crisis. Those are some of the key takeaways that I would recommend.”