Q&A: Toby Cosgrove on running the Cleveland Clinic and community comms


Alison Kanski, reporter at PRWeek: Cleveland Clinic is often ranked one of the top hospitals in the country. How do you maintain that?

Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic: Our overall strategy is that patients across the country know about our unique clinical capabilities. We're a hospital that sees the sickest of the sick in the country, about 25% of our beds are intensive care. We want to get the word out about the specialty things we do that not every hospital can.

Right now our campaign is about access. We got a call from a patient who was asked to wait two weeks for an appointment. It was urgent because that patient couldn't go to the bathroom. We don't know when patients need to be seen, so I approached our CMO and communications team to say we need to create this same-day appointment. The marketing and PR efforts supported that with commercials and in the press. We now see about 1.1 million same-day appointments. We wanted people to know we were available.

Now we have expanded that concept to access your healthcare anywhere, anytime. You can chat with a Cleveland Clinic physician on your iPhone or iPad or make an appointment online.

Earlier this year, Cleveland Clinic hit the media after it performed the first uterus transplant. How did your PR department handle that?

The uterine transplant was about 10 years in the researching at this institution. Everything needed to be well-documented and we needed a carefully thought out media relations strategy. When there's new science it has to be evaluated carefully. You never know where something new is taking you.

Eileen Sheil [executive director of corporate communications] headed that team. She did a great job getting people ready. We didn't announce anything until the operation had been done and didn't have a major press conference until seven days later, when the patient was ready to go home. When we started running into complications, we were equally transparent.

How do you promote research coming out of the hospital?

We work closely with our physician scientists and doctors in every clinical area to make sure when important studies come out we amplify them through the media and beyond. We put it through social media, media, everywhere. A recent study about heart attack patients getting younger and fatter was picked up in 100 publications in a couple hours.

The country is becoming more and more unhealthy — how do you promote a healthy lifestyle to patients and employees?

We're crazed about that; we talk about it all the time. The best way is to model that within our organization of 80,000 people. We promote anti-smoking and healthy eating. We do not hire smokers. When somebody applies, we test them and if they test positive we offer them smoking cessation. They can reapply if they've given up smoking. We also put a big push on the food we serve here. In the cafeteria you can't get French fries and hamburgers; it's broccoli and chicken. You can't find a candy bar anywhere and we've taken sugary drinks out of the vending machines. Believe it or not, we've lost over 500,000 pounds.

We started making dramatic changes, not just internally, but vocally through the press. We supported efforts to go smoke-free in the state of Ohio and worked with state universities in Ohio to have campuses go smoke-free as well.

What does your PR department look like?

It's about 40 people across the organization, with two functions. One is internal communications, which are vitally important in getting our message out in our far-flung organization. Secondly, it's important to highlight the image of the organization and its relationship to the community, because we are a community resource.

Do you use an external firm?

We've built a lot of internal capabilities, but when meeting bigger firms we realized we don't have the resources to do everything. We hired Ketchum in New York and they've been a wonderful complement to the work we do. They do things we're not able to, such as creative brainstorming, research, and analytics. They help us with PR measurement, thought leadership, and many other things.

How important is PR to running the hospital?

Part of our obligation is to educate people on health and tell them where they can get good healthcare. We need to be part of the community, to educate them as well as take care of them.

You have to establish communications on an individual basis. We do that a lot, whether I'm going to see people at the local newspaper and talking to editors, whether I talk with all kinds of community groups around town. We use the power of the media, radio, TV, and print, to get our message out. The voice of PR is incredibly important to us.

This Q&A originally appeared in PRWeek.