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Atrium Health’s Key Learnings During COVID-19

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On this episode of Culture, Comms, and Cocktails, we have Chris Berger, Vice President of Enterprise Communications at Atrium Health.

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails is internal comms served straight up, so settle in, drink in the knowledge. Some shaken, some stirred, and maybe even some with a twist, and enjoy the top shelf guest I have lined up for you. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, Senior Strategic Advisor at SocialChorus. On this episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, we have Chris Berger, Vice President of Enterprise Communications at Atrium Health.

Atrium Health, previously Carolinas HealthCare System, is one of the nation’s leading and most innovative healthcare organizations, provides a full spectrum of healthcare and wellness programs throughout the Southeast region. Atrium Health works to enhance the overall health and well-being of its communities through high-quality patient care, education and research programs, and numerous collaborative partnerships and initiatives.

“I think if ever there was a time for an app that can reach frontline teammates at any time, whether they’re at home, whether they’re working on the frontlines, whether they’re wherever they are, this has certainly proved to really reinforce our strategy. It’s been truly game-changing to be able to push out information because working at home is, still there’s some complexity there, especially when you’re dealing with VPN and trying to get into the network that you’re working on. ” —Chris Berger

We feature communications leaders every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Don’t miss an episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, brought to you by SocialChorus. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode #33 Transcript

Chuck Gose: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Culture, Comms & Cocktails. Internal comms served straight up. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, Senior Strategic Advisor at SocialChorus. And on this episode of the podcast, we have Chris Berger, VP of Enterprise Communications at Atrium Health. Chris, welcome to the podcast again.

Chris Berger: Thanks. Thanks for having me back.

Chris Berger: I wasn’t feeling the pressure until just now. So let’s see if we can make this a good one.

Chuck Gose: Yep. You are my first one, so I’m curious here as a sequel second guest coming on, what’ve you been up to, Chris? You’ve been a little busy working in healthcare. What’s been happening out there?

Chris Berger: Nothing really notable to speak of, except this little thing called COVID happening across the world.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. It’s really been amazing to think you and I spoke toward the end of last fall and what we were talking about, what we were doing and we’ll follow up on some of those things, but then to think none of this was even a whisper, a thought.

Chuck Gose: First off, I’m not in the area. You guys are down in the Southeast, but I know for those, thank you and your team and all the people there at Atrium Health for all the work you guys have done and continue to do as we make our way through this pandemic.

Chris Berger: Yeah. It’s been an incredibly crazy time, exciting time, everything that you think about. And I think as you’ve noted several times in a lot of the notes you make on LinkedIn and social media, it’s really been a resurgent time for communication. So in some ways, yeah, it’s been absolutely nutty, but in another way, it’s been very fulfilling because I think, more than ever, we’re looking at where the communication field is absolutely being valued probably more than I can ever remember in my entire career.

Chuck Gose: Mm-hmm. I would say definitely valued, definitely appreciated, definitely more well-thought of and people recognizing that impact that it has. And I think that a unique challenge, at least as an outsider, that I think Atrium Health has is the fact that your organization crosses state lines. So taking this out of healthcare, there’s a lot of organizations who have had to balance, deal with… There’s federal guidelines and then you see states doing different things. What kind of communication challenges did that present across these areas?

Chris Berger: It’s been an interesting one because we do have… We’re headquartered here in Charlotte. We have about 70,000 teammates throughout the Southeast, mainly North Carolina, South Carolina, but also in Georgia. Navicent Health, that’s part of us. And I think it’s actually been really interesting and unique because each one of those states and each one of those areas that those hospital systems are in, they are presenting with COVID a little bit different than what we’re seeing here in Charlotte. So they might be a little bit in front of what we are seeing, so we’re trading like…

Chris Berger: Sad to talk about some of the topics, but when we first had our first COVID-related death, we were able to really bounce ideas off each other and saying, “Okay, how are you handling that there?” And then get in front of it in another area of saying, “Okay, here’s how we handled it. This is the lessons that we learned. Here’s what we think you should do in your area when this comes and this happens in your area.”

Chris Berger: And that was some of the things that we were able to quickly learn and share those things throughout all of our system, which I think is the beauty of being part of a large integrated system like Atrium Health is those learnings were able to be pretty much put in place almost immediately, and then make that other area even better than we were here, maybe, in Charlotte.

Chris Berger: I think those were some of the unique things, and I think as we have continued through every single phase, different states are opening up at different times. South Carolina looked a lot different than North Carolina and certainly Georgia looked a lot different. And even at Navicent Health in Georgia, they have a field hospital stood up that the governor just visited yesterday there.

Chris Berger: I think these are the types of things that we’re learning from each other, and that was one of the beauties of the integration that we thought of originally was, we’re going to learn a lot from others as much as they’re going to learn from us. So we’ve seen that play out certainly from a communication angle and then just being able to disseminate that information and then to be able to find value in it has been pretty awesome.

Chuck Gose: You mentioned the governor of Georgia, I think you said visiting. You’ve had some other VIP visitors as well recently, and I know how challenging that is during business-as-usual normal times, what kind of challenges… Just give us some background, who it was and how it played out.

Chris Berger: Yeah, it was an exciting last week actually. We got about 30 hours notice of our Human Health and Services… Am I saying that right? I think I am. Secretary Azar, he came in his first visit to a healthcare system post-COVID, and wanted to come check and see at some at our testing centers, see what we were doing, learn a little bit about what was happening here in Charlotte.

Chris Berger: So he visited last week and in conjunction with… We have a close partnership with the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and they were the first really sport as you know, to really start everything without fans, but there’s still a lot of safety precautions that have to happen for the drivers, for those working the event. And we’re a major health partner with the Charlotte Motor Speedway, so they were coming to not only check…

Chris Berger: We have a testing site, a COVID testing site, one of the many around the Charlotte area where we have put these roving sites in place to where really the community can come up and drive through a testing site, not even have to get out of their car for the safest possible testing. Then they’ll get the results back within 24 hours, which is unheard of for one of six systems in the nation that has in-house testing capabilities. That’s pretty neat.

Chris Berger: He was coming to check that out and just, honestly, talk to our leaders and have a round table and discuss the things that we saw through it and ways that they can help out, everything from reimbursement to testing, PPE, all those things that we’ve heard in the news about how do we protect our frontline workers even better?

Chris Berger: It was a fast and furious event. We were able to unveil our Med One, which is a one-of-a-kind… We’re the only one in the nation that has this really neat hospital on wheels, basically. So we quickly were able to pull that out and we have a brand new one that we haven’t shown to anybody before. And we’re able to fly in a helicopter and others to really showcase what Atrium Health has to offer during times of not just hurricanes or other things, but really quickly can put something in place like that.

Chris Berger: And I think as he noted, he was very impressed with what was happening here and what we were doing, not just for the Charlotte area, but the underserved area, which is many, many states are struggling with how to address coronavirus in underserved areas. Because you think about access and you think about all… They’re typically on the front lines working, as well, and don’t have that readily able to go to a facility that’s been…

Chris Berger: So we’ve been putting these geographic models in place where we can pinpoint where we think and see that there’s a COVID spike, and we’ll go directly to that place with the partners that we have in the community, set up a testing site, and we have eradicated a disparity that existed before. That’s a really, really, really neat thing that we’ve been doing, and it’s a model that now those across the nation are actually looking at of how to implement in their community because places across the country are noting that there was just a huge disparity, and we have eliminated that disparity here in Charlotte.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. As an admitted not-the-world’s-largest NASCAR fan, but admitted someone who is starved for live sports, I did watch some of that NASCAR race. What was fascinating for me to see was, obviously, there were no fans. That didn’t really take away from the TV experience. But what I noticed was the employees, the race teams, the people like that who are obviously very PPE-focus prior to, and safety-focus prior to, to see every single teammate driver out there wearing masks, even the cameramen who were up on these pedestals way out in the middle of nowhere wearing a mask, and hopefully that helped send a message to people to take this very seriously.

Chris Berger: That’s right. I think there was a huge focus on that. Even with Secretary Azar’s visit, it was really interesting because there was a huge focus when we were all sitting around. And that was the first time in several months that I’ve seen my executives that I support here at Atrium Health and the entire team had the face mask on.

Chris Berger: It was just a very interesting, unique experience. One, seeing them for the first time in many months, since we’ve all been working from home. And then everybody having masks on and talking, and it’s just, again, we use this word the “new normal” or whatever that means. But that’s part of what we were experiencing, and it was pretty darn interesting.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. Now When we think back through the communications and targeting employees and different information for different location because of state lines, and have these VIP visitors coming in, how did Teal Insider… That’s your internal comms platform. How did that help with getting employees the information they needed because of where they worked or who they were or what their interests were?

Chris Berger: Yeah. I think if ever there was a time for an app that can reach frontline teammates at any time, whether they’re at home, whether they’re working on the frontlines, whether they’re wherever they are, this has certainly proved to really reinforce our strategy. It’s been truly game-changing to be able to push out information because working at home is, still there’s some complexity there, especially when you’re dealing with VPN and trying to get into the network that you’re working on. Email usually works fine, but if you’re going to an internet site, typically there’s an issue where you have to then do an extra step to get to the internet and then see it, which unless you really need to get to the internet, you’re probably not doing that because it’s just… People are lazy and I don’t do it unless I have to go sign an invoice or something like that.

Chris Berger: So what the app has done is it allows us to break through and just make it easy, just like everything else that’s out there. Perfect example, for Secretary Azar’s visit, we were able to send out a push notification before that ever hit the newswires around here, let teammates know what was happening and have some pride in that. But just beyond that, anytime we’re having very technical things, like at the beginning of this pandemic, the PPE, personal protective equipment, for those that are like, “What is PPE?” Probably know by now, but I always hate when people use names and we don’t know what they are. But when those requirements are coming out, CDC was changing them daily, so first it was that we were saying don’t wear PPE because it’ll scare people, and that’s been our typical operations. Then it was, “Nope, wear PPE.” Then it was universal masking, basically everybody wear PPE.

Chris Berger: So it was one of those things where being able to communicate those things and those changes along the way, along with the why, instead of just saying, “Here’s a new policy,” it’s like, “Hey, here’s a new policy and here’s why we’re changing them,” and having a short board about that. That was extremely beneficial. That along with push notifications, just game-changing again, where we can send out a push notification, making them fun when appropriate, and it has been one of those things that it’s actually forced us out of our quote, unquote, comfort zone, to be able to do more of those because people were asking for more. I think that the app has been one of those things that we look back and we’re saying so, so glad that we had that in place before this event hit, because it could have been a whole different scenario as far as communicating to the entire enterprise.

Chris Berger: We’ve seen the numbers spike as well, which is, obviously, music to my ears because it makes… Anytime you see usage and we see the amount of people that are signing up for the app, that’s a beautiful thing, too, because more people are getting that communication.

Chuck Gose: And through this exercise the past few months, one thing I’ve been curious about for the communicators is have you uncovered any new voices for the organization? Because what I see a lot of times is communicators tend to go back to the same well all the time when there’s something important to communicate. Have you uncovered any new, I don’t want to say leaders, but experts, thought leaders, people now that are positioned in the organization that employees listen to? Probably listened to before, but communicators didn’t go to that source.

Chris Berger: 100% percent. I think we have found a whole new set of subject-matter experts on various topics that we’ll continue to use afterwards. And I think that’s one of the beautiful things I’ve talked to my team about and talked to others about. During moments of crisis, you really find out, one, what kind of team do you have? And then, two, what you find is you build relationships, a lot of times with people that you never had relationships before, or you deepen those relationships because you’re in the trenches.

Chris Berger: So it’s definitely been a very exciting time. It’s one of those things where now we have these relationships, and even from a national news perspective, we’re being sought after, tremendously, by pretty much every major broadcast network out there. And it’s not uncommon to see us now on CNN and Fox and many others, CNBC, all these, because now we have these subject-matter experts that are getting widely known that really we weren’t in that position before, and really looking forward to fostering those relationships even further, because we have this little thing called the RNC that’s supposedly coming to Charlotte here in the fall. And I think those relationships will even pay off because we have been shown now to be a subject-matter expert in a huge variety of areas around healthcare.

Chuck Gose: Now you mentioned your team and let’s do a couple more personal questions related to this. As the leader for the organization there, how have you been checking in on your team and how they are doing personally trying to manage work through this pandemic?

Chris Berger: Yeah, I think it’s one of those things that I, I desire anyways. My goal is to stay in touch with my team as closely as possible. I know there’s probably some that are probably thinking, “Yeah, I wish you would stop calling me so often.” But at the end of the day, I think that one of the things that I’ve really tried to do is those personal touches that I think… There’s that saying, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And that’s something that resonates with me a lot.

Chris Berger: And what I didn’t want to happen is, on the other side of this coming out of the stay-at-home, work-from-home type of thing, that we go back to the office and my whole team is like, “I never heard from Chris, so I really didn’t– I heard from maybe others, but I didn’t hear from Chris as our leader.”

Chris Berger: So those personal touchpoints have been really important to me. I’ve made it a point to try to call each one of my team members and just kind of check in, not even from a work perspective, but just, “Hey, how are you doing? How’s your family doing? Do you have everything that you need?”

Chris Berger: I did something fun a couple of weeks ago. I put together a care package for each one of them and this fun little COVID-19… I don’t know, you’ve seen the emoji with the face mask on? We had cookies made that had that and did them in our Atrium Health teal, and then a personal handwritten note from me. I think again, the art of a handwritten note has gone down in our age of technology, which makes it even more special when you get one. And then some coffee to keep them going.

Chris Berger: So it was just those types of fun things that I think hopefully come across as genuine, and really that I care about the team and certainly care about the work, and making sure that we’re doing those weekly meetings and, and touchpoints with the entire team and my direct reports and those types of things.

Chris Berger: But beyond that, I think the personal side of really knowing what people are going through, because there are people on the team who have family members who are affected by COVID. There are people who somebody has died within their extended family and things like that. And so it’s those types of things you’d never know because they wouldn’t readily just share that information, but when you call and reach out and connect with them on a personal level, I think that’s the most important part.

Chris Berger: We weren’t put on this earth necessarily to write the best communications plan. I think we’re put on this earth to affect others and impact the lives of others, and I take that pretty seriously.

Chuck Gose: Do you think, thinking back over the past couple months, was this the greatest comms challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Chris Berger: Yeah, without a doubt. Without a doubt. I’ve told others, I used to work at Walmart and one of the things that I helped coordinate was our global response to Ebola. I thought that was probably going to be the craziest thing I ever worked on because you’re talking about two plus million teammates that you’re having to coordinate stuff around. They’re all over the world. And communication, and many different languages and all kinds of things, but this took it to a whole nother level.

Chris Berger: We started hearing about it in January, December-ish. We were all like, “Wow. It’s just like the flu.” It’s like, “Let’s compare numbers.” And then it just went from zero to a hundred overnight, basically. And to see what happened in the level, in the amount of communications and the policies that had to be really rewritten and then communicated. And then those policies were rewritten. And it just kept on going and going and going.

Chris Berger: And really, as good a job as we did putting those new things in place, think about hospital restrictions on visitors. Now we’re having to undo all that, right? So we did a really good job of communicating that and making sure that everybody understood what the hospital restrictions are, but now we’re having to go back and say, “Okay, now we’re easing them, and here’s what we’re doing.” So it’s almost like you have to do double work on the backend to make sure that people feel safe coming to the hospital.

Chris Berger: And we have a whole new initiative that we unveiled. I was talking about our COVID Safe Standards that we’ve put into place, which has been really neat to be part of it from end to end. And obviously, we have a whole lot more to go through and we’re going to learn a whole lot more, but it certainly has been one for the record books. And I think we’ll all look back another 20 years from now or whatever, and be like, “Remember when?” This has been pretty intense.

Chuck Gose: And then when you think about the next couple months, the next couple quarters, what are your comms plans? Because probably what you had planned in 2020, at least back in the fall when we spoke, is not what you’re doing now, or maybe there’s some elements of it that are the same, but how are you guys focused for the rest of the calendar year from a comms standpoint?

Chris Berger: We had our ongoing communications plans, right? That was the interesting thing. It wasn’t like this was we’re sitting on our hands. We had a very full schedule of everything that we wanted to accomplish from a goals perspective and everything. And one of the things that we’re looking forward to in the coming months is hopefully announcing the finalization of a new med school here in Charlotte with Wake Forest Baptist Health. And so that’s something that we were working on before and hoping to continue that work soon.

Chris Berger: We also had announced that another health system, Floyd Health in Georgia, we’re looking at a strategic combination with them. Anytime you’re talking about mergers, acquisitions, those type of things in that realm, that’s a lot of work.

Chris Berger: So all that work continues along with everything else that we wanted to accomplish from a thought leadership standpoint of how do we want to talk to consumers? How do we want to talk to our own internal teammates? All of those things continue.

Chris Berger: Culture building. Every time you do a merger/acquisition type of event, your culture is affected, and so how do you really put those things in place that really reinforce your culture. I think that’s the type of stuff that we had planned, and we’ll continue to work on that, but it’s been, obviously, with this extra layer of the event that we’re going through right now, it has certainly been one of those things where now, as we’re starting to phase back in a little bit phase by phase, we’re looking at, okay, what’s sustainable? How do we re-press the reset button a little bit, and look at, okay, there’s this bucket of work with the pandemic, but then we also have those things that we need, and we know from a health system standpoint, we need to get back going. We need to start those, what they called non-essential surgeries, which are very essential for some people to live a valuable, stress-free, pain-free life. And so that’s the type of stuff that we’re really trying to make sure that continues to work and continues… We’re getting out there.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. You’ve mentioned a word that’s now been top-of-mind for a lot of people. How much now we use those words essential and non-essential in very universal ways, but they’re not very universal to individuals, right? What I deem essential might not seem essential to somebody else.

Chuck Gose: We’ve taken the time, we’ve learned about, I think people have a good idea, if they listened to the last episode or this one, the culture and communication activities that you and your team have accomplished. And again, there’s only so many hours in a day, but your team has gotten the job done.

Chuck Gose: I know I praised you earlier this year around being a strong brand advocate for Atrium Health on LinkedIn. So everybody listening to this or watching this, go follow Chris. You’ll see how to get it done as a comms leader.

Chuck Gose: But very recently, Chris, you were also on a Healthcare Town Hall that SocialChorus did with a few other communicators from Ohio State Med Center and LSF healthcare. And on that town hall, I learned something about you that all this other work you’re doing, you also have a side coffee business. So it’s not cocktails, but it’s still beverage. So talk a little bit about your interest in this coffee business and what you’ve done with it during this pandemic.

Chris Berger: Yeah. It is something fun that I started about five years ago. I’ve been roasting coffee for about 20 years and really decided to do something fun with my hobby and make it into a legitimate business. And so Sugar Creek Coffee Roasters, that is my side hustle, so to speak, and it’s just been something fun.

Chris Berger: I have a couple other people in the community. I have a schoolteacher that is my right-hand guy that helps me out and a couple others that have jumped in. None of it’s our full-time thing, but it’s been really helpful for me personally, just because it allows…

Chris Berger: When you’re roasting coffee, you cannot take your mind off of roasting coffee, or other words, you’re really going to mess it up. And I’m pretty serious about fresh-roasted coffee and making that as delicious as possible, and started this roasting company and it forces me not to think about work, which really helps because then I can come back to whatever I’m working on with a fresh mind, as opposed to obsessing about it, because I think if you’re like me and many other communicators, you can obsess about every word and every thing. And when you can come back to something afresh, it truly helps me.

Chris Berger: So yeah, this roasting company has had a life of its own during this event, and what I did is I started a special blend that’s called Hunker Down.

Chuck Gose: Good name.

Chris Berger: And I have many more that are on the website and some of them, 100% of the money goes to a special cause that is near and dear to my heart. On this one it was same type of deal where, basically, for every single bag that someone purchased, there were two things that happened.

Chris Berger: If you were in healthcare, you got a free bag. Just stop by and get a free bag of coffee to keep you going because we know they’re putting in some crazy hours.

Chris Berger: The second part was $5 from every single bag of coffee went to the frontline workers. There’s a critical need fund that was stood up because we know there’s so many people facing lots of different scenarios that they never had to face before. So $5 of that.

Chris Berger: It’s been incredible to see the community support around that. So fun to ship these bags of coffee, really all over the US, and it is actually one of my favorite blends now. And I don’t think I’ve announced this anywhere. This could be the first announcement.

Chuck Gose: Oh, we’re ready. We’re ready for this.

Chris Berger: Yeah, we’re ready. So we’re actually changing the name from Hunker Down because a lot of states are going out of hunker down version. We’re changing it to Silver Lining because all of our names have idioms attached to them, and this is the silver lining that came out of the COVID-19 crisis. So a delicious new blend, but we’ll keep on doing the $5 from every bag. So pretty exciting stuff.

Chuck Gose: That is really cool. And as someone who knows nothing about coffee, other than I enjoy drinking it, Chris, that’s really cool. So it was Go check it out. Order some bags. Help out.

Chuck Gose: There you go. There’s a mug for those watching the video. Go order some. Truly awesome effort, Chris, and I think that showing that even someone at your level, how it helps you in your job by being able to take your mind off of your job and truly leaving it behind. I think that’s something that people at a lot of levels of organizations struggle with, and it’s okay to put your mind into a hobby, a side business, something that you’re passionate about because it could end up making you better at what you’re doing every day from a comms standpoint or accounting or finance or whatever that is.

Chris Berger: Yep.

Chuck Gose: So we also do like talking about cocktails. I know you had a great recommendation last time, Chris, but it’s a little different season now. We’re coming into summer. Last time we spoke, it was fall. We’re coming into summer. So what’s your favorite summer cocktail?

Chris Berger: Yeah. So a friend of mine turned me on to gin and tonics. Yeah, so gin and tonic with the right amount of lime is just a very refreshing end-of-day cocktail that’s just very refreshing. So that’s what I’m enjoying. Yeah.

Chuck Gose: So I’m a huge gin and tonic fan, Chris.

Chris Berger: Nice.

Chuck Gose: I believe it’s an all-seasons beverage out there. My recommendation is Hendrick’s gin with cucumber, no lime.

Chris Berger: Okay, nice.

Chuck Gose: Either you can muddle some cucumber in it, do a cucumber spear to keep it mixed up in there. That’s the way to go. Hendrick’s gin, muddled cucumber gin and tonic. Absolutely amazing.

Chris Berger: Awesome. I’ll definitely have to try that.

Chuck Gose: Chris, thanks again for coming on the podcast. Thanks for all you do to put Atrium Health at top-of-mind again. A strong brand advocate, a great communications leader out there. Thank you for your time, your thoughts, your attention today. I know that people listening to this will get a lot out of it.

Chris Berger: Thanks so much, Chuck. I always appreciate being on here with you, and I, again, would be remiss if… I’m the front person for an amazing team and they do so much of the heavy lifting and would be crazy for me to get off this call without giving them a shout out and saying what an awesome team I have here at Atrium Health to help me along the way.

Chuck Gose: Awesome. Well again, thank you, Chris.

Chris Berger: Thanks.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms & Cocktails on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And when you do, hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture, Comms & Cocktails. Internal comms served straight up. Thanks for listening.

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Chuck Gose

Chuck Gose

I am a self-proclaimed Skyline Chili connoisseur and Duran Duran fan with nearly 20 years of experience in marketing, corporate communications, and internal communications. My passion and enthusiasm for the communications profession began early in my career at General Motors and Rolls-Royce, Since then, I have focused on weaving internal communications and technology in creative ways. I'm also the co-creator of The Periodic Table of Internal Communications and The Very Hungry Communicator. But most importantly, I got to fly in a blimp once.

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