During recent California wildfires, Scripps communicators created a mini news bureau to keep workers better informed than even the media
When the wildfires began spreading through southern California last month, communicators at Scripps Health in San Diego wasted no time setting up a system for getting news to employees.
“While our external communications team gets word out to the media, those of us in corporate communications work in tandem and become a mini news bureau,” says Mike Godfrey, director of corporate communications. “Our primary goal is to keep our 14,000 Scripps staff as informed as possible, so that they can go about their work knowing that they’ll get important news. I’ve been calling it ‘We’ve got your back’ communications.”
As a five-hospital and multiple-clinic health system in San Diego, Scripps has a broad audience to reach. There are about 11,000 employees, 2,500 physicians and 1,500 volunteers.
“As you can imagine, whenever we face something like the recent firestorm, regular work takes a back seat,” Godfrey says.
One thing made it easier to stay on top of news: Communicators had a direct connection to an online emergency site operated by the county for “first-responders”; additionally, staff members monitored all main television and radio networks providing fire coverage.
Beginning the morning of the fires, communicators began sending updates via e-mail to their “All Staff” list, which includes approximately 80 percent of the staff. Updates included the latest news on evacuations, road closures, fire spread, evacuation center openings and closings, school closures, safety information, and emergency resources.
Three days, 50 messages
“Over the next three days and nights, we sent more than 50 such update messages, plus one to two memos a day from our CEO,” Godfrey says.
Communicators also included updates on activities solely within the Scripps system. For instance, two of its hospitals had to prepare evacuation plans (though they never needed to evacuate), most were struggling with air quality, and the organization was canceling elective surgeries, closing buildings, etc., so it was equally important to update staffers on what was going on internally.
Though most of the updates were sent at the system level, the communication staff at each hospital site also sent site-based updates and information—including hospital entrance and exit closures and the availability of day-care.
“Toward the end of the week and running into the following week, messages went out less often and were more focused on the lifting of evacuations, recovery centers, clean-up tips, donation needs and, of course, emergency benefits put into place to help employees who were directly affected,” Godfrey says.
You can’t overcommunicate during a crisis. Scripps employees repeatedly expressed their appreciation of the frequency of internal communication.
As staffer Jennifer Trombley told Godfrey’s team, “After listening to the radio and watching TV for three days, I just want to say that the most concise, timely and accurate information has come from your messages.”
The fact that Scripps had a crisis communication plan already in place was critical to communicators’ success during the wildfires, Godfrey says.
Following Sept. 11, Scripps created an office of disaster preparedness. “Our marketing and communications department has worked closely with this team from the very beginning, which means we regularly participate in county and statewide drills and other planning efforts,” he explains.
The 9/11 tragedy was the first time the team communicated with employees directly by e-mail during a crisis.
“At that point, we hadn’t planned it; it just seemed like the right thing to do,” Godfrey says. “Since then, we’ve improved the process through other crisis events—the school shooting in Santee, Calif., and the 2003 fires come to mind.”
But the well-practiced process “worked twice as effectively,” he says, with the addition of the County Emergency connection.
“We’re told some of our news updates were two or three hours in advance of public news reports,” he says. “Our employees very much appreciate our taking an interest in their needs for information in a crisis. They know they don’t have to stay home or stand in front of a TV all day to learn if their neighborhood is going to be evacuated. They know we’re going to tell them. This allows them to focus on patient care and other priorities.”
Employee Dorothy Digiovanni agrees; she sent this message to the corporate communications department:
“I know I speak for my fellow employees as I express our heartfelt thanks to your department for your outstanding efforts to keep us informed during these fires. It was a trying time for all employees, with concerns for our families and our homes. I was astoun-ded by the amount of information you were able to get to us on a daily basis. I looked forward to the frequent updates. And finally, they brought encouraging news. You were there when we needed you, a true reflection on Scripps’ values.”
Scripps keeps employees in the loop
Here’s one of the numerous updates that communicators sent to workers.
From: Corporate Communications
Below are some brief updates provided by Scripps locations. For detailed information, please check with your site’s command center. Please distribute among the staff on your team to ensure consistent communications.
Mercy San Diego
Mercy Chula Vista
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