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Speech by Ed Shiller to Ontario Hospital Association convention

Ed Shiller

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For any one of you who, like myself today, have had to deliver a public address, the words of former U.S. president Woodrow Wilson might strike a sympathetic chord.

“If I am to speak ten minutes,” he mused, “I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

Well, it took me just over two days to prepare these remarks, so you can do the math to figure out how long I intend to speak.

I came across Wilson’s observation when I Googled the phrase “communications quotes” in search of a few pithy comments to include in my remarks today.

What I found was illuminating, relevant and, more to the point, stimulating.

Here’s an eye-opener from Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.”

So if you’re unable to catch your 40 winks tonight, I will have done my job.

Edward R. Morrow, whom my contemporaries may recall as a pioneer of broadcast journalism, had this to say:

“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.”

He said this half a century ago, long before the development of the multi-gig computers that occupy our laps and desk tops. Now, of course, each of us has the opportunity to suffer writer’s block at warp speed.

Even if you do think of something to say, George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “the problem with communication . . . is the illusion that it has been accomplished,” may mean that your efforts will go for naught anyway.

Or as Hubert H. Humphrey put it: “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously.”

And Michel de Montaigne put my own thoughts into perspective when he said “I quote others only in order to better express myself.”

What follows now, however, are my own words, describing my own points of view on how healthcare providers in rural and northern Ontario can communicate strategically in transformative times.

Everything in my approach to communications stems from the fundamental premise that communications is persuasion.

Entities – human and otherwise – communicate in order to affect the behaviour of other entities.

Your dog barks at the mail carrier, birds sing in the forest, flowers emit bright colours and alluring scents.

Each is a form of communication designed to affect the behaviour of others.

The dog wants intruders to go away; the bird to map out territory or attract a mate; the flower to attract bees to cross pollinate.

Humans also communicate to persuade others to do, or not to do, something.

Indeed, one could make the argument that verbal and nonverbal communication for the purpose of persuasion is a common element of all human interaction and is the basis of every human institution, encompassing

marriage and the family,

commerce and industry,

recreation and entertainment,

religion and charitable works,

education and learning,

government and power,

and, of course, healthcare.

Another premise of communications is what I call residual goodwill (and its evil twin, residual ill will).

Residual goodwill predisposes your audiences to receive your communications in a positive light and therefore plays a significant role in every human encounter.

Residual ill will has the opposite effect.

Here’s how it works. We are constantly exposed to the actions of and opinions about individuals, organizations, professions, ideas and issues.

This exposure occurs not just through the media and the formal communications tools that we generate, but in all facets of our daily lives.

You encounter a rude salesperson in a store, a friend praises the swiftness and fairness with which an insurance claim was settled, the mail carrier always greets you with a smile.

Over time, these experiences settle, like sediment at the bottom of the sea.

Their memory may grow dim or be lost, but each additional exposure to the store, the insurance company or the post office roils the waters and rekindles, perhaps not the exact memory of the experience, but almost certainly the attitude that the experience engendered.

The sum total of these attitudes constitutes the residual goodwill or ill will that we harbour.

And that goodwill or ill will plays a significant role in formulating our response to new developments.

In this way, we tend to support the good deeds and apologize for or forgive the bad deeds of those we like, and we tend to condemn both the good and bad deeds of those we dislike.

The underlying purpose of any communications program is to build up as much residual goodwill as possible.

Residual goodwill is the foundation upon which reputations are built and sustained.

It is the shield that protects us in time of crisis by increasing the likelihood that those upon whom our well being depends will be receptive to our side of the story.

It then follows logically that the more you communicate, or to be more specific, the more you initiate communications – that is, the more proactive you are – the more residual goodwill you will generate.

And I don’t mean being selectively proactive; I mean being proactive all the time, regardless of whether you are experiencing periods of success or periods of failure.

This is especially true when dealing with the media. Not returning reporters’ calls or otherwise hiding from the media is never the right option.

It is, in itself, a form of communications that sends an unmistakable message; namely, that you have something to hide and thereby are, indeed, guilty of some kind of wrongdoing.

And this message will threaten to destroy a significant amount of the goodwill you might have built up over the years, and any subsequent protestations of your innocence will likely be rejected or ignored.

If you don’t communicate during the bad times, no one will want to hear or believe what you have to say once times get better.

The effect is magnified during periods of pervasive social or economic unrest, when broad sectors of society believe they are at risk, when feelings of anxiety and insecurity are rampant and when vulnerable people are possessed by a gnawing hunger for scapegoats and retribution.

At the same time, for those who are the object of finger-pointing – those who are singled out as would-be scapegoats – the compelling urge to run and hide can be overwhelming.

Unfortunately, the consequences of giving in to this compelling urge can – and likely will – be devastating.

History is replete with examples of organizations that paid a steep price because they chose to remain silent when under attack.

Many of you will recall the tunagate controversy in the late 1980s.

StarKist refused to return calls from the CBC, which was working on a story about supposedly tainted tuna being approved for human consumption.

The story that was eventually aired was probably factually correct.

But because it lacked balance due to the absence of input from StarKist, public opinion lined up solidly against the company.

The result was that the StarKist tuna processing plant in New Brunswick that employed 240 people was permanently shut down.

Contrast this with the way that Maple Leaf Foods handled the recent listeria outbreak in Ontario that killed four people.

The president of the company accepted the challenge presented by the crisis and went on television to explain the situation forthrightly and with conviction.

It wasn’t long before consumers actually regarded the packaged meat produced by Maple Leaf as being the safest on the market.

The powerful irony is that the cans of StarKist tuna condemned as “tainted” were actually perfectly healthy to eat, yet it killed the company’s New Brunswick plant . . .

. . . while the infected Maple Leaf cold cuts proved to be lethal, but the company emerged from the crisis with renewed vigour.

The divergent fortunes of the two food producers can be attributed in large measure to their divergent approaches to crisis communications.

Now in addition to a devastating economic downturn and the enduring danger that crisis may erupt at any moment . . .

. . . we also include in this noxious brew the imperatives created by a process of transformation . . .

. . . accelerated by advancing technology and intense pressure for economic restraint . . .

. . . in the way that you, the healthcare providers in rural and northern Ontario, fulfill your respective mandates.

Change is always threatening, even change for the good.

Most of us feel secure in established routines . . . in the way things have always been done.

Just as a moving object will resist forces that attempt to change its speed or direction, human beings will resist change in their daily lives . . .

. . . especially when that change affects something so fundamental to their well being as healthcare.

As a progenitor of change, healthcare providers in rural and northern Ontario risk alienating significant numbers of external as well as internal stakeholders.

The less you communicate effectively to build residual goodwill, the more will people resist the process of transformation . . . and the greater will be the dissipation of the residual goodwill that you have already generated.

I’d like to return to the idea of communications as persuasion and bring into this discussion three of my guiding concepts of communications.

The first of these is enlightened self-interest.

The most effective way to persuade someone to act in a certain way is to appeal to that person’s sense of self-interest.

You’d be more likely to pursue a particular course of action, if you believed it would benefit you.

But what kind of benefits does your communication promise? What does your communication appeal to?

Analyze just about any advertisement and you’ll see the point I’m trying to make.

Most ads attempt to motivate us to action by appealing to guilt, greed, compassion, altruism, embarrassment, competitiveness, ego, pleasure, envy, a sense of belonging, the desire for approval and other emotions that I call triggers of persuasion.

For each of us to live truly fulfilling lives, however, we will need to grasp the consequences of yielding to triggers of persuasion . . .

. . . and to determine whether these consequences will be beneficial or harmful to us . . .

. . . whether the gratification we feel when we are persuaded by a desire to avoid embarrassment or to undertake an altruistic act is truly in our self-interest.

Enlightened self-interest is acting with the knowledge of the underlying and longer-term consequences.

I may really want to buy that fancy sports car because it will make me the envy of my friends and build by ego.

But if the price is so steep that I may face financial ruin, enlightened self-interest would dictate that I do not buy the car, despite the short-term pleasure it will give me.

And aside from financial considerations, will being the envy of my friends truly strengthen my self-esteem or will it merely be a futile exercise in chasing shadows?

Each of us is better off when guided by enlightened self-interest.

It makes sense, therefore, that when we communicate, our attempts to persuade appeal to the enlightened self-interest of those whom we wish to influence.

As an aside, experience has taught me that when trying to build support for an organization, people will be more responsive to accounts of its strengths and successes than laments about its troubles.

By the same token, rural and northern Ontario healthcare providers will likely build significant residual goodwill, and hence public support, for their goals and objectives . . .

. . . by publicizing, for example, their innovative use of telemedicine and other technologies to provide efficient and effective healthcare.

.

You can do this in the flyers, billboards and PSAs publicizing your fundraising campaigns . . .

. . . in making presentations to regulatory bodies, conferences and annual meetings . . .

in your handouts at public information booths at community events . . .

in how-to columns you might write for community newspapers . . . . The list goes on and on.

Coincidence of self-interest is another guiding concept of communication.

A coincidence of self-interest occurs when each side of the persuasion equation (that is, the person or organization communicating, on the one hand, and the intended audiences, on the other) benefits.

It’s your classic win-win situation, and in a fundamental way, defines just about every personal and business relationship.

And this leads to the third core concept of strategic communications: Informed decision-making.

This involves identifying any coincidence of self-interest between your organization and the people you are trying to influence.

You then develop and implement communications strategies and programs that will best equip these people to make informed decisions that lead to action that will advance their respective enlightened self-interests . . .

. . . while at the same time, advancing the goals and objectives of your organization.

The communications framework I have just outlined constitutes a tool that can be used to craft what you say and how you’ll say it.

Using this tool is a complex process that entails knowledge of the goals and objectives of the organization . . .

. . . understanding of public attitudes . . .

. . . skill to identify and use the various means of communications . . .

. . . and the ability to make it all work.

But it all boils down to this: What you communicate by word, images and behaviour must be

o Truthful (that is., factually correct);

o Accurate (that is, it gives a valid impression);

o Beneficial to your organization (that is, it will instill those attitudes and perceptions that will likely induce your publics to act in ways that will advance the organization’s goals and objectives), and

o Beneficial to your publics (that is, it will help them make informed decisions that will advance their own enlightened self-interest).

These criteria can only be met when an organization does good things and does them well – or comes clean when it doesn’t.

But if an organization tries to mask incompetence or to cover up wrongdoing, all of the four criteria cannot be met.

In such circumstances, the only way the organization could persuade people to do its bidding would be to lie outright to them or to bend the truth in order to create inaccurate perceptions.

Doing this is what we have come to call spinning.

And it is unethical, immoral, in some cases illegal, and most often ineffectual over the long-term – so you ought not to do it.

The means of communications comprise such things as . . .

. . . brochures, flyers, internal and external newsletters, web sites, intranet, e-mails, regular mail, faxes, social media (such as blogs, YouTube, RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) . . .

. . . news releases, how-to articles for community newspapers, technical articles for trade and professional magazines, commentary articles for daily newspapers, quarterly and annual reports, presentations, advertisements and speeches.

Communications activities might include . . .

launches, trade shows, community meetings, speaking platforms, news conferences, media interviews, editorial board meetings . . .

. . . staff meetings, Christmas parties, sponsorships, donations, contests, public hearings, facility tours and demonstrations.

Everything I’ve said so far would apply to any organization . . .

. . . equally to heathcare as to mining, education, hospitality, financial services or any other industry.

And it would apply equally to an organization in rural and northern Ontario . . . as to an organization in Toronto, New York, London or other urban centres.

What makes you unique are the special challenges facing the delivery of healthcare in rural and northern communities.

I believe I’m correct in saying that among these challenges are . . . attracting top-level doctors, nurses and other healthcare practitioners . . .

. . . serving a geographically diverse population . . .

. . . and enduring greater unit costs for highly specialized healthcare services.

These challenges, in turn, create unique communications challenges.

Not only must rural and northern healthcare providers influence their local communities regarding such matters as raising funds and attracting volunteers . . .

. . . they must also influence an array of people in other geographic areas.

Examples of these groups would be . . .

students at medical schools in cities across the country . . .

. . . lawmakers at Queen’s Park . . .

. . . and urban dwellers whose tax dollars are needed to adequately fund healthcare services in widespread rural and northern Ontario communities.

These unique circumstances require unique communications strategies and programs that apply universal principles of communications . . .

. . . but with their own special mix of communications tools, activities and messages.

This brings me to the end of my formal presentation . . . which I hope will be a starting point for you in the form of questions from the floor.

So I will now follow the dictates of yet another pearl of wisdom I gleaned from my Google search . . .

. . . this one from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”

 


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