Seattle Children’s Hospital focuses stories on people, not programs

By cutting the number of stories and tightening the focus on employees, the health care organization sees a major boost in staff engagement on the intranet.

Seattle Children's Hospital comms tips

Communicating to employees about a change in benefits can be a thankless task, and it’s often tough to get them to click on emails and intranet articles.

There’s one way, however, that Seattle Children’s Hospital drives interest in stories that employees often shrug off in many organizations: It makes every piece about people.

The use of individuals to communicate about issues is a major element of an effort in which the hospital produces fewer stories but increases the hits, says Alison Zurcher, Seattle Children’s interim director of research and internal communications.

Six or seven years ago, Seattle Children’s cut down the number of stories for its InHouse newsletter from five or six to two features a week, matching them to the organization’s stated values: collaboration, compassion, innovation, integrity, equity and excellence.

“We started mapping all of our feature articles to those six values,” Zurcher says.

The new-style pieces are longer, and they focus on Seattle Children’s employees and patients. The difference is clear from the metrics, as more employees are clicking through to the intranet, where the stories live.

Under the old approach—with shorter, drier stories—the team had a goal of 400 hits per article. Nowadays, the people-oriented pieces regularly beat the goal of 1,100 hits per story—often toping a “stretch goal” of 1,300 hits. Some get as many as 3,000 hits.

“We have seen an enormous increase in engagement with our feature articles,” Zurcher says.

Veterans Day visits

Consider a recent benefits story, about the change in the way time off and vacations are reckoned. Rather than merely chirp about all the pluses of the new system, Seattle Children’s found an individual to tell the bigger story.

InHouse related how employee Wendy Price had a long tradition of placing flags on graves at a Seattle cemetery on Veterans Day. Formerly, holidays were deducted against employees’ paid time off accounts, and as a new employee in November, she didn’t have enough accumulated tenure to take the holiday off.

The new time-off plan changes that by making Veterans Day one of the standing holidays observed by the organization, leaving Price “ecstatic,” the article stated.

“Next year my daughter and I can continue our tradition, because Children’s will be recognizing the tremendous sacrifice our veterans have made for our country, and because holiday time off will be separate from vacation time,” she told InHouse.

Controversy draws readers

InHouse sometimes publishes stories dealing with controversial issues that employees face. One of these—headlined “Who Should Decide: When Young Adults Make Questionable Medical Decisions”—garnered 3,100 hits, far beyond the 1,300-hit stretch goal.

The piece discussed a patient who had been diagnosed with incurable cancer and was refusing further care.

The article addressed the dilemma that caregivers face: “How do you deal with that as a caregiver when you feel powerless, and you want to help this patient, but they don’t want to continue on with care?” Zurcher says.

Tragic, but why shouldn’t a patient with a fatal diagnosis refuse care?

“It might look incurable, but there’s new cancer treatments and new regimens all the time,” Zurcher says. “By helping [a patient] survive longer, is there going to be another option … later on?”

The six-person team promotes its content in a weekly newsletter containing article teasers, announcements and calendar items. Simply by adding photos, the communication staff boosted click-throughs to the intranet.

The intranet homepage displays the latest four features, starting with the newest. Seattle Children’s posts articles on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The newsletters, which go out every Tuesday, publicize the latest two stories.

Over the years, the hospital has added social elements, so people could comment, “like” and share stories. Some organizations turn off comments on controversial articles, but Seattle Children’s allows reactions on every piece—even potentially contentious ones.

A quarterly feature, “Hidden Gems,” allows the editorial team to “shine the light on some really cool work and people you might otherwise not know anything about,” Zurcher says. One story highlighted four women working off-hours in urgent care.

“We try to pick the behind-the-scenes people,” Zurcher says. “We’re not featuring the people curing cancer [in this section], but we might feature somebody who’s part of the research center doing behind-the-scenes work.”

Bargain hunting

A standing feature, “All in a Day’s Work,” provides a platform for a story about Bargain Boutiques, which the hospital runs to earn money to defray the cost of care for families in need of financial assistance. Members of the team follow the story subject around for the day.

Such stories “are easy to produce, but they’re really fun,” Zurcher says. “And it’s great for staff.”

By writing less and focusing the topic on people, Seattle Children’s is seeing results. Communicators are conveying the information they need to convey to a wider audience. Internal social sharing—as well as the two-way engagement of comments—helps spread the news even further.

The communication staff delves deeply into the metrics to see what lessons they can derive from the data. Team members evaluate what the top 20 and bottom 20 stories were. What pieces drew hits, “likes” and shares? What were the clunkers? Do any patterns emerge?

This helps determine what to cover next, but one thing is unlikely to change: the focus on people.

As the hospital adopts this approach, its internal clients have begun to realize that when they request a story, they also must offer an interesting individual to write about. As the clients see the value of sharing information via stories, this encourages them to propose people to write about, instead of just offering disembodied initiatives.

Zurcher says, “It’s more engaging, so more people are receiving that information.”

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