The value of the communications role: ‘We can either stoke a fire—or put it out’

Kaiser Permanente’s senior comms leader offers a prescription for success.

Kaiser Permanente's comms

To say there’s never a dull moment in his workday would be an understatement. As senior director of public affairs and brand communications for Kaiser Permanente, John Stratman is accustomed to constant change.  He’s among those leading the messaging for the nation’s largest nonprofit health plan, with more than 200,000 employees serving more than 11 million members from 600+ locations in eight states and D.C.

“The biggest challenge is the time-sensitivity of the information and sheer volume amid all the unknowns and anxieties people are facing,” says Stratman, who’s been with Kaiser Permanente for nearly 14 years. Prior to Kaiser, he held numerous public affairs roles at the state and local levels and at major corporations, including director of external affairs for AT&T.

John Stratman

As a senior member of the Kaiser Permanente Orange County Leadership Team, Stratman oversees the company’s government relations, corporate communications, media relations, issues management and the community health program.

He spoke to Ragan from his home in Coto De Caza, California, and shared these morsels of wisdom about work, life and being the calm in the storm:

1. Make remote work work: “It has forced me as a manager to be more engaged with my team,” says Stratman, who noted that it’s also been easier to pull people together quickly, and for staff to work interdependently on projects. Stratman manages six communicators and is responsible for Kaiser’s corporate communications serving the 3.3 million residents of Orange County, California.

2. Be patient. “One of the stronger attributes we have as communicators is our ability to be patient,” says Stratman. Feel comfortable with change and the unknown.

3. Journalists can be vital partners. Stratman says the local media in particular have played a key role in helping get word out about Kaiser Permanente’s clinic and office closings and consolidation during the pandemic, as well as vaccination updates. “We’ve been very nimble with the media and our relationships have strengthened in the past year,” he says.

4. Understand vaccination hesitancy. Says Stratman: “While we strongly encourage it, we have to be mindful that getting vaccinated is a personal decision. There’s tremendous power in friend-to-friend, family-to-family [vaccination education].”  Kaiser Permanente has administered millions of vaccinations so far.

5. Practice empathy. “As you communicate to internal and external stakeholders, you have to have a good amount of empathy to succeed.”

6. Cool heads will prevail. During a crisis, communicators need to be the calm voice. “We can either stoke a fire or put it out,” says Stratman.

7. Public affairs is a roller coaster ride. Stratman was attracted to public affairs early on, as it encompasses traditional communications and brings in the larger picture of brand placement and community engagement. But, he says, “issues management is not for the faint of heart. There are lots of highs and lows.”

8. Go on vacation. For any leader, always find time for yourself because it’s easy to get wrapped up in a task, says Stratman, who enjoys golfing, going to the gym and devouring business books about leadership. He’s currently reading “The Ride of a Lifetime” by Disney’s former CEO Robert Iger.

9. Choose your surroundings wisely. Surround yourself with good people, those who believe in you and want to see you succeed, he says.

Here is some more of his advice for pros looking to get their start or take the next step in their career:

  • Tips for recent college grads: Find ways to intern. Ask a lot of questions, and, says Stratman, understand all the spokes in the comms wheel, from community relations to advocacy, from strategic decision making to writing.
  • Don’t squander a role: “These jobs are difficult to come by, and you’ve got to get in somewhere. Every opportunity is a growth opportunity.”
  • Passion equals career success: Says Stratman: “A lack of it comes through no matter what, so find your passion.”
  • Best advice: A friend once advised a hard-charging Stratman, “Sometimes you’ve got to move slow to move fast.”

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