Kennedy Health System in Cherry Hill, N.J., faced a challenge: Patient satisfaction scores were below the system's goals. And Kennedy's senior team was not sure what front-line staff members were telling patients and others outside the hospital about Kennedy, its services, its care and its commitment to the community.

In addition, the senior team recognized they needed to create a consistent messaging platform with other key audiences, both internal and external. What messages should the senior staff communicate to physicians and others within the health system? What messages should the nursing staff communicate to patients? Moreover, what messages should advertisements and marketing materials communicate to the outside world? Who is Kennedy? What does Kennedy stand for?

Working with a public relations firm specializing in health care communications, the senior team at Kennedy Health System obtained feedback from executives and employees. The goal was to frame messaging that would unite the executive team and the employees in their perception of Kennedy as different from other health systems in the area.

Here's how we did it, and how you can do it, too:

Step 1: Interview executives to establish a benchmark. We began by interviewing 15 senior leaders individually. We wanted to know what they thought were the most vital messages to impart to patients and others. What were Kennedy's strengths; what were the differentiators? As a community-based hospital, what did the senior leaders think were the most compelling messages to focus on, and what were the challenges to be overcome?

There was agreement that the three hospitals in the system were the first step to health care services in the area: When patients come to the hospital, Kennedy clinicians care for them directly and may arrange for them to receive additional health services upon discharge from the hospital. Kennedy's senior team was proud of the primary care physician network; the warm, comfortable hospital environment; and the staff. But there were many questions about whether staff were happy to be part of the Kennedy family. We would find out.

Step 2: Invite employees to participate. We convened four focus groups: non-executive managers, nurses, and two other groups from Kennedy's three hospitals as well as ambulatory services. We wanted to know if the members of these groups had the same thoughts about the hospital, its quality of care and its offerings.

Step 3: Listen to what employees say. We were happy to learn that employees were proud to be a part of the Kennedy family. They believed they provided excellent care. They were eager to know what to say to patients and even to their own families and friends. But we discovered there was a disconnect between what the senior leadership team discussed and communicated among themselves and what they communicated down the line. For example, senior managers liked positioning Kennedy as the "front door" to health care. When we discussed this concept with employees, they were not as enthusiastic. A simple change to using the term "gateway" to health care left employees feeling positive about their contribution to the health system's messaging and empowered by the organization's position in the marketplace. The focus groups opened up communication and made a world of difference.

Step 4: Incorporate what you learn. The research identified common themes all employees agreed upon that ultimately shaped the key messages and talking points: sense of community, culture and vision, quality of care outcomes, and patient satisfaction. The final messages and talking points encompassed Kennedy's vision for health care delivery and distinguished Kennedy from other area hospitals and health systems.

Step 5: Evaluate other communication tools, too. We evaluated presentations, social media content, surveys, memos, magazines, newsletters, patient information and other documents our organization produces. To ensure that all communications would be consistent, we conducted an audit of nearly 90 internal and external documents. Similar to the messaging research, the publications audit revealed opportunities to improve consistency in messaging for internal and external communications.

Step 6: Achieve CEO buy-in. Reviewing the findings from the focus groups and the publications audit, the CEO saw firsthand how improved consistency in messaging and branding could help him achieve his vision for the health system. He approved the changes immediately. The rollout happened quickly, because the recommendations made sense.

Step 7: Roll out the changes. We wanted to get employees excited about their role in relaying important messaging to patients by creating buzz about the findings. After all, the staff helped us by providing input. One week after presenting the research results, the Kennedy communications team began holding a series of briefing meetings to introduce the new key message platform to departmental managers and implement the recommendations from the publications audit. The key messages set Kennedy apart from its competitors and are now used both internally as the foundation for employee communications and externally as the foundation for executive presentations.

The nursing staff were trained on the messaging strategy so their behaviors reflected what they were saying. Nurses are taught to respond and communicate the "why" of statements. They are taught to be "in the moment" and to listen carefully and respond quickly to a patient's concern or request. A system of "bundled" actions was implemented that included regular rounding in patient rooms, along with scripted messaging which is delivered in a consistent manner.

Key Lessons from Kennedy's Journey

The process of engaging employees to assist in message development is a critical step in defining the persona of your hospital and health system. Teaching middle managers the necessity of being good communicators is a vital step in the process. And reinforcing the message by teaching consistent behaviors is essential in positioning your hospital and health system and distinguishing it from its competitors.

As Kennedy has learned, no hospital can afford to ignore good internal communications.

Fran Atkinson is the vice president of marketing at Kennedy Health System in Cherry Hill, N.J. Anne S. Klein is the founder and president of Anne Klein Communications Group LLC in Mount Laurel, N.J.