Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre chat with Laurie Munn, Senior Director of Strategy and Business Development at Mercy Care, a not-for-profit health plan serving AHCCCS members throughout Arizona. Mercy Care provides access to health care services for families, children, seniors, and people with physical and developmental/cognitive disabilities. Learn more at MercyCareAZ.org.
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The in-house communicator is a professional within an organization, responsible for any number of activities from internal and external communications, marketing, media relations, and probably many other things as well. It's a unique role with unique responsibilities, unique opportunities and challenges. In this mini-series on Copper State of Mind, we're going to hear from a number of in-house communicators who are going to share with us a bit about their work, their challenges, when they work outside agencies, what that entails and essentially tapping into the expertise of this unique group of professional communicators. As always, our host for this podcast is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations, a firm that has worked with many companies here in Arizona. Abbie, what's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Well, Adrian, when we started this podcast a little over a year ago, it was all about the things that we were doing as an agency and the kind of, some of the challenges and things that we are brought in to work with and the different types of clients that we work with. And we've had a really good conversations about what those things look like, and it struck me that so much of what we've been talking about is my view looking in. And with a conversation I was having recently with a colleague about what it might look like from inside looking out, and so, I thought it might be fun to do this little mini series and bring in some colleagues in the community that do this work, but do it from an internal perspective. So joining me today on the podcast is Laurie Munn. And Laurie is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Mercy Care, which is a local nonprofit, Medicaid -managed care health plan that serves about a half a million people here in Arizona. And Laurie's responsible for all aspects of Mercy Care's communications, and she's been doing it for a long time. So she and I met, goodness, probably 25, maybe longer years ago, back when she was working in television. She spent about nine years in the newsroom and then transitioned that position into both her own consulting firm and in-house, primarily in the healthcare space. So I am thrilled to have Laurie join us today to talk a little bit more about the role of an in-house marketing communications professional, and really what it means when they seek outside counsel and strategic communication support from outside of their internal communications team. So Laurie, welcome to the podcast.Laurie Munn:
Thank you, Abbie. That was a lovely introduction. I was thinking about when we first met and I want to say it was either 1989 or 1990. So yeah, we've been friends a long time.Abbie Fink:
We were just children. Just mere children.Laurie Munn:
Yes. I was 23, actually. I can remember that. So yes, we were infants.Abbie Fink:
And our careers have intermixed over the years. And certainly we can talk about really the changes that have been happening in the media market and what we were doing as young communications professionals, both me as a public relations practitioner, you inside in the newsroom, but really, how those two roles have evolved, but we still are very dependent upon our colleagues in the newsroom to do the work that we're doing, but maybe how we do it and how we structure the roles that we play has certainly grown and advanced. So if you could just to get us started, share a little bit about your experiences and that transition time between taking the role of the news producer and looking at making that transition into public relations and communications and your own consulting business. And then what you've done internally in the healthcare space.Laurie Munn:
When I was getting out of television news, it was the late 90s. I had a baby who was 18 or 19 months old at the time, and after I had worked on some breaking news things that required overnight work or weekend work... Because news breaks when it breaks. It doesn't worry about family hours or anything like that. And it was difficult with a small child, and so, I made the very easy decision to move on to something else. And so, I went to work at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center for a couple of years as the Public Information Officer there. And it was a natural transition because my job was to work with the media primarily, although I did do internal communication work there at that time. And it was a really wonderful place to work. It still is a great place to work. And I didn't stay there too terribly long, however, because then I had another baby. And pretty soon, when you have two kids in daycare, and I think most people can really appreciate this now, at a certain point, you're working to pay the babysitter and that's what happened to me. So I had a good network of people who still remembered me from my work in television and had trust in me from a ethical perspective and a writing perspective, and all of those things. And so, I was able to create a freelance business of my own that I ran for seven years. And I supported all kinds of clients. I had law firm clients and healthcare clients. There was an Arabian horse show that was one of my clients. And that was when websites were just coming into vogue, and I don't think people really realized at the time what a critical tool it was going to become, but I did a lot of early web work and things like that. And it was fun. It allowed me to be available to my children. And then when they both got old enough and both went to school, then I went back into corporate communications. And so, I've been with my current company for 16 years doing a variety of different things.Abbie Fink:
So the transition from the newsroom to a public relations practitioner, communications practitioner, made sense in that the skills were similar. We might have delivered the service in a slightly different way, but good writing skills, organizational skills, and such, and understanding what is news was important obviously in the newsroom, but is certainly what we look at on a regular basis when we are working with our clients. But creating a communications team or working within a communications team where everyone involved has the same mission and the same focus, maybe coming at it from slightly different perspectives, is a little bit different in-house than it would be in an agency like ours. So, talk a little bit and about the structure and what it looks like., and what roles do individuals play. Typically, if there's a typical in-house communications and then segue that a bit into what types of things, maybe early on in the area, that you were looking to outsource, and then what you're doing now from a more strategic perspective, bringing in creative services to assist with what you're doing.Laurie Munn:
How our team is structured and the communications team at Mercy Care is I'm a director, I have four direct reports, so one of our managers is responsible for our digital assets, our website, our social media presence, content updates. We're re-platforming our website right now so she's leading that, managing the translation of the website. It's a big job. It's a heavy lift. And then I have someone who is responsible for internal communication to our 1100 employees, as well as what we call member communication. She does a lot of work on communicating with members who are Mercy Care members. Things like flu shot mailers and different collateral pieces or social media content or something that will impact members. With a half a million members, that's a lot of communicating that's required. And so, we have a couple of folks that actually do that. And then I have a third person who assists with public relations and media relations and building strategy around, like if we have a new contract that's implementing. She has been learning the ropes around leading how you do that and how you interact with stakeholders in those service areas and things like that. There is never a dull moment in healthcare and in healthcare communications. And I think that's one of the things I've always really enjoyed about it, it's a dynamic, interesting industry that there's just always something new to learn.Abbie Fink:
And probably still a 24/7 environment, maybe not quite as what it was like in the television days, but certainly healthcare is a 24/7 business.Laurie Munn:
It is.Abbie Fink:
That's a lot of work to support with just four people. And recognizing that you've got a lot of audiences that are looking to you to support, whether that's the internal communications, the employees, those people that work for you, the people that are your members or those that utilize your services, your partners in the community, that's an awful lot of different bosses, if you will, different clients that are demanding of your time. How do you divide and conquer in terms of prioritizing and when do those projects get mapped out throughout the day and throughout the time that as they're coming to you? How do you make that all work?Laurie Munn:
Well, it may not surprise you because you've known me a long time, but I am a compulsive planner. I really, really believe in planning and as much as you can plan, because obviously, things happen, things change, something comes up and your plan for the day can be out the window by 9:30, right? But in my mind, having a plan, it frees you because it allows you to have the structure you need, even if you need to pivot. And so, I start planning for next year in October, sometimes September, so that we have a feel for, "Okay, here's what's coming up. This is what our capacity is going to look like. And these are the things that I know about." So for example, last fall, when I was planning for this year, we knew that we were going to have a new expanded regional behavioral health agreement that was going to take us into Pinal and Gila counties. That's going to go live October 1st of this year. And so, let's back into that timing to be able to say, "Okay, we need to do community outreach sessions and community information and listening sessions, and working with providers to make sure that they understand what's changing so that they can tell their patients who are our members." So we do a lot of planning and making sure that let's allocate in the right places. Are there areas where we'll need additional budgetary support, for example? Do we have the staff to handle this without having people working 90 hour weeks? Because I absolutely will not request that of my employees. How do we balance that bandwidth and that workload in planning what is going to, first of all, meet the needs of the people we serve our members and our providers, but then meet the needs of the organization, allow us to make good on the things that we have promised to do and take care of our staff and do a good job? And one of the things I think I'm proudest of in the work we do at Mercy Care is we do a very good job at communicating with our members and providers with our stakeholders, we have a good media presence, people know what we're doing. And so, I feel really good about that.Adrian McIntyre:
Laurie, one of the most fundamental concepts in our work, regardless of where we sit, is that we're trying to get the right message to the right audience through the right channel at the right time in order to produce some outcome, some meaningful action on people's parts. If you could just give us a little bit of a broad strokes overview. As you've talked about the communications internally, the communications with members, the broader media landscape, what are the channels you find yourself most actively using and how are you designing campaigns and communications in those channels? This is a huge question, obviously you could break it down in a lot of detail and take a lot of time, but everything from email to social, to other apps, to traditional media, TV, tele-radio, whatever... Talk a little bit about the channels that you're currently trying to leverage.Laurie Munn:
Well, I think one of the things that all of us in this industry have become quite adept at handling now is virtual platforms for events, for meetings, for outreach, for just general communication. And so, a lot of us learned a lot very quickly in the first 60 days of the pandemic. That was when all of us discovered a little platform called Zoom and, "Oh, this could work," and "Oh, but we should probably put a password on that so that people don't hack our meetings." There were quite a few case study examples of that, so we learned that, we adapted quickly, but we tend to gravitate toward electronic channels more than anything else because that's where people live. That's where they get information. It's on their phones, on their device, on their tablet. And so, I try to not put a lot of resources toward mailing if I can avoid it. If there are regulatory requirements that dictate you have to send this, then of course we're going to comply with those contractual requirements and we'll we'll mail them. But the first thing we look to do is, "Okay, does it have to be mailed? Can it be handled with a multi-touch approach of email, text messaging, interactive voice response, phone calls, those types of channels? Can we do it via social media? Can it be handled by via a portal?" Because that's where people are. One of the things that I think we've gotten good at doing within the healthcare industry as a whole, is thinking about how we use technology personally and then recognizing that patients, health plan members are no different than we are, so I really want a text message reminder that I have an appointment tomorrow at 9:30. What I don't want is a phone call. It depends on what people are, have opted in to do or how they like to receive information, but we try to be very thoughtful about meeting people where they are. And so, one of the things that Mercy Care has worked on in collaboration with HMA was a project we did in 2019. The campaign was called Do You Know MAT? And it was about Medication Assisted Treatment. And we gave the treatment itself a personification name, Mat. Most people think of Mat, they think of a guy. And what we did before we did anything else was we sat down with a group of people who had... The campaign had to do with recovery and treatment from opioid use disorder. And so, we wanted to hear from people who had dealt with opioid use disorder, had dealt with addiction and recovery, and what should we say in our messaging to help people understand the importance of this treatment and bust the myths around the treatment. And what shouldn't we say, because that is just as important. And how do you want to get this information and how don't you want to get this information? And the folks that we pulled together were peer support specialists from different providers around Maricopa County, and they came in and we met with them for a couple of hours, and we asked questions and they gave us phenomenal information. And it's become a best practice for us now. When we are going to launch a new campaign, we just build a discovery phase right into our communication plans, and I absolutely insist on it now. I insist on the time to do that because it saves us time and money and resources later on. I really believe that it makes it so much more effective. If you can go to the people who are going to be consuming that information, they'll tell you what they want and they don't want, they're just waiting to be asked.Adrian McIntyre:
Yeah, I could certainly relate to that. I used to work internationally for a large humanitarian relief organization as a field-based media spokesperson and communications officer, and the number of times that someone from headquarters wanted to issue some statement based on what people at headquarters thought was the important messaging versus what our local NGO partners and our beneficiaries, in other words, the actual human beings being affected by the conflict that we were supporting, would tell us something completely different. And it was often a fight to try to get the voices of the people, to actually inform the messaging, because we had very smart, very motivated press officers in the UK who were counting their points by how many times they got on BBC or Radio 4 or something of that nature. And so, they were trying to get the punchy headline that would actually get the news producer to agree to feature the story, but oftentimes, that was detrimental to our work in the field because we were working under a government that did not want that story told. Anyway, I won't go into any more details about it, but it's great to hear that a very richly informed messaging campaign starts by actually asking the people or the people who work with the people. How should we talk about this?Abbie Fink:
You're right. And Adrian, I think your point about the headquarters versus the on the ground team is a great... Well, it was going to segue into my, my next conversation, which is really about getting the seat at the table. That the communications team needs to be actively engaged with leadership and with the decision makers, and whether that's an external audience or an internal audience, but bringing in the implementers of those messages at the point where the decisions are being made is so critically important. And within an organization as large as Mercy Care, there's multiple divisions and multiple leadership that potentially needs to weigh in. And Laurie, where are you in that structure in terms of being in those conversations with leadership and when a potential communications requirement is needed, where are they bringing you in? How are they capitalizing on the knowledge and expertise that you bring, not just at the point where it's going to be implemented, but really in guiding the strategy around it?Laurie Munn:
Well, we've worked hard to ensure that people bring us in early. And I would say 85, 90% of the time, we get brought in the very beginning, which is so important when you're talking about bringing in communication, because at some point, if you're doing something, you're probably going to need to tell people about it. Even if it's just the people inside your organization, at some point, you're going to have to tell somebody about it, and the smart time to do that is at the very beginning. And I know you've talked about this on this podcast more than once, Abbie, because I'm a listener and I have heard you, and it's hard to stand up and cheer when you're driving your car, listening to a podcast, but I have done that on occasion when I have been listening to you while driving, because it's so important. What it does is it saves time and money, and it makes your communication so much more effective. And so, what I've taught teams of people that I've led over the years has been, "We don't need to have the answers. We need to have the questions." The right questions are the gateway to the right answers, as long as you know how to ask them, how to phrase them, and how to probe a little deeper.Adrian McIntyre:
Laurie, you mentioned a specific campaign that you worked on with HMA public relations. And I'm curious as someone who works neither with a PR agency or with a corporate environment, how do you approach that? You have, over the years, worked with lots of different outside providers, and you said something interesting when we were chatting before we pushed record, something about mindset. Is your own mindset ready or right for this, but walk us through a little bit how you now think about when and how to approach the idea of bringing in outside help for a particular project or campaign.Laurie Munn:
I think if you're looking at potentially going outside, the first thing you have to look at is you have to begin with the end in mind. With apologies to Stephen Covey, you have to begin with the end in mind. And so, what do you need to accomplish in this project or this initiative? And in the example that I used earlier, the Do You Know Matt? campaign, we needed help with graphic design, media buying. We were the subject matter experts and we had subject matter experts in terms of what is medication assisted treatment, who are the providers delivering it, but how can we elevate this to just be more than a flyer, a couple of social media posts? How can we do that? In my case at that time, when you're trying to implement a new contract and do a building move and... Trying to think what else was going on at that time, but it was a very busy time at Mercy Care, and I myself did not have the bandwidth to sit down and think about what that could look like. And so, to be able to expedite the communications campaign on that, I called Abbie. Because first of all, we have a long friendship. I know Scott Hanson, who is the co-owner, I believe, of HMA. And I knew Scott when we worked together at Channel 5 back in the late 80s, early 90s, and I know these people well and I trust them. And so, I called Abbie, she had availability, we got together, we talked about some different thing, and then we started putting those pieces in place to be able to execute that campaign. And so, to look at why would I go outside? Well, first of all, it was a bandwidth issue, but then we needed that expertise. We needed a wider lens than what we had on our team. And even in our subject matter experts. And we wanted to find different ways of reaching people because the message needed to get to people who weren't maybe necessarily Mercy Care members. Maybe they were people who were coming out of incarceration. Maybe they were coming from a different part of the state. So we needed fresh ideas and we needed to be able to meet the people who were going to receive that messaging where they were. So that's how we looked at, "Okay, can we go outside? I think we need to go outside," and we did, and it was a very successful campaign.Adrian McIntyre:
You mentioned getting your own mindset right. What does that mean? And how can people with perhaps less experience or less connections than you have approach the outside hiring process?Laurie Munn:
So my recommendation for that would be, you have to be in the right frame of mind to recognize that help is needed and that it's a good idea. And so in my mind, this is what I recommend to other people. Be open to change, be open to doing things differently. This is the whole reason you want people to come in and help you, right? So we're not going to do this the same way we've always done it if we're bringing in additional people with additional perspectives, expertise, lived experience, mindsets, all of it. So you have to be open to change. You have to be open to those new ideas. You have to be open to not having all the answers, or any answers is really a better approach to it is what I've learned in my career. Start with a clean slate. Be okay with not having any answers because once you can get out of the way, check your ego at the door, as we used to say, then you're going to get such better collaboration. If you take the pressure off of your team where they feel like they're... And we can talk about this too, but I never want my team to feel like we're bringing in extra help because you guys can't do the job. That's not it at all. And we can talk about how to build that trust before you even get started. But as I mentioned, the questions to me are the far most important thing. And my favorite questions always start with, "What if," because something cool is going to be on the other side of that. There's a whole lot of possibility behind the question., "What if?" And I'll give you an example. A couple years ago, we were implementing a brand new contract for the children who are in the child welfare program, and we really needed to get that message in front of people. And the timing was not fortuitous for this brilliant idea. We are still going to use it, so help me. It was just at the beginning of COVID, so we really wanted to be able to get information in front of families. Here's what's changing. So this is for families who are either foster families or kinship families who have taken a child in their family, into their home, because the parents are unable to care for it. And so, this is what you can expect now that you've got this new child in your home, this is what they need as far as healthcare, behavioral health, et cetera, but it's not always easy to get that message to people. They might have email, but if you've got a new little person or three or four little people living in your house that weren't living here last week, there's a lot to do with bringing young children into your house. And so, absorbing information from your health plan, probably isn't your highest priority if you need to get them enrolled in school, get them a place to sleep, get them food, clothing, and just figure out how you're going to navigate this new phase of your family. So we were sitting around in a brainstorming session, my team, and I, thinking about, "Okay, how can we get this messaging to these families who are super busy?" And you may have grandparents who maybe don't have a ton of money and so you want to be respectful of that. How can we get this information? And so, one of my team members said, "What if we rented a drive through or drive-in movie theater?" And I said, "You have my attention. What do you mean? Tell me what you're thinking?" She said, "What if we had a bunch of bags together, we rented a drive-in theater, we show a kid's movie, but before that, we work with the theater to give us an opportunity to do a short presentation to the families. They can listen in their vehicles on their stereos, their radios, or whatever. We tell them what they need to know. We give them some promotional items. We give them their member handbook. We pay for the popcorn. We pay for the carload of people. We take care of the tickets, and then everybody watches Finding Nemo or whatever the kids movie of the week was. And what if we did that?" And I was jumping up and down because that sounded like such a fun thing that we could get people to do. Unfortunately, the next week, then the Delta variant exploded in Arizona and there was no way we were going to bring foster families to a congregate gathering like that. But it was just a great example of what if, and it was only going to cost about $3,000. And if we figured if we could get 300 families in to come and listen to that type of messaging, it was going to be a great return on that investment, and it would give them a memory that would be fun and uplifting for the kiddos. And so help me, we are still going to do this.Adrian McIntyre:
Yeah. $3,000 doesn't buy you very many seconds on television.Laurie Munn:
Not at all, not at all, but it's a chance for people to work with us and meet our staff. And I recognize that these are real people who really want to help. And so, it's my favorite example of a what if question that just had all kinds of possibilities and it sounded like such fun.Abbie Fink:
Well, and I think what's so interesting about that is I had asked you about having a seat at the table and being part of the executive level conversations, but you are mirroring that within your team as well and giving your team the opportunity to explore and that no idea's a bad idea philosophy, so they're really seeing it in action, the trust and the empowerment to make decisions. I loved what you said about, "We're not expected to have answers, we're expected to have questions," and challenge outcomes, and be that voice within our organizations to ask the what ifs and what happens when, and should we maybe consider, and allow the conversations to develop in order to come to workable solutions that everyone can support, and then have the trust to put it back in the hands of those that are meant to implement what they're doing. And I think the idea here of recognizing the strengths of the people you have working within your team and the day-to-day responsibilities that they have and what they're expected to do, and when the time is right and new projects present themselves, or things that are going to push the team in a direction that may not be where they need to be going at a particular time, is a good opportunity to consider bringing in additional resources. And whether that becomes a long term contractual relationship where you bring in freelancers or other consultants that can do it, and having those resources before you need them, even if you aren't ready to make a decision, but having some folks that you can call on and that understand your business and understand how to do it. And the long term relationship that you and I have over time has evolved because of that trust level, and that we've been able to work with and work together with our separate teams and then come together with and create a new team to implement these. To me, the lesson coming out of this conversation is really about recognizing whether you are a team of one or a team of 100. There may be times where it makes sense to bring external assistance, and whether that's public relations, graphic, design, photography, videography, whatever it might be, bring in those that can assist and improve and empower your team to do what they need to do with an outside objective team of people who every day ask the question and help guide the clients to those answers.Laurie Munn:
Well, and the other advantage of doing something like that too, Abbie, is the more diverse points of views that you have at the table, the wider net you can cast with your communication, because somebody... If it's a... I lost my train of thought. Because somebody is going to have an idea that you didn't think of and at the end of the day, I think it's a lot about what don't we know. Let's find out what we don't know so that we can put that to work for the people that we're trying to get this message to.Abbie Fink:
Absolutely. Well, Laurie, thank you so much. I'm really excited about the conversation that we have and really to contrast what an in-house communications team and the strategies involved and that ultimate seat at the table is equally as important from an internal communications team as it is for those that are coming in to consult with a lot of questions to help guide our conversations to get to those important answers. So we are in the house with Laurie Munn, part of our mini-series here at Copper State of Mind.Laurie Munn:
Thank you, Abbie.