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Why Nebraska Medicine Believes Keeping Up Communication Is a Key Response During A Global Pandemic

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On this episode of Culture, Comms, and Cocktails, we have Paul Baltes, Director Communications at Nebraska Medicine.

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 Paul Baltes, Director of Communications at Nebraska Medicine.

Nebraska Medicine is a private not-for-profit American healthcare company based in Omaha, Nebraska. The healthcare center traces its roots back to 1869 with the founding of Omaha’s first hospital. In the decades since, it has built an international reputation for breakthroughs in cancer care, organ transplantation and treatment of infectious diseases.

“Our communication policy was largely the same in that, if a reporter calls or an employee has a question, you answer them. You be as forthcoming as you’re able to be because people need to know, people want to know. Communications is a key part of a response to a pandemic because lack of information leads to lack of security, I think. The more we can share with people of what’s really going on, the better they’ll be able to make decisions for their own lives and their families.” —Paul Baltes

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 #31 Transcript

Chuck Gose: Hello, everyone. This is Culture, Comms and Cocktails, internal comms served straight up. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, senior strategic advisor at SocialChorus, and on this episode of Culture, Comms and Cocktails, we have Paul Baltes, Director of Communications at Nebraska Medicine. Paul, welcome to the podcast.

Paul Baltes: Hey, thank you for having me. Glad to be here.

Chuck Gose: Well, grab a seat here at the Cocktails lounge. Let’s get started. First off, Paul, in this weird time we’re all in, how are you and the team at Nebraska Medicine doing during this health crisis?

Paul Baltes: We’re doing well, and thank you for asking. I think it’s one of the things we can look to as a positive from this whole thing is, I think maybe we’re checking up on each other a little bit more and asking that, how are you doing? Especially in healthcare. I feel like I’ve been hearing that more and more. But we’re doing well. I think our health system felt pretty well prepared and pretty well trained for this, which is not to say that we had all the answers going in because clearly nobody did, but we’re also fortunate that right now the State of Nebraska hasn’t seen the volume of sickness that other parts of the country had seen. We don’t think we’ve hit our peak yet either.

Paul Baltes: We’re still anticipating things will get busier in the weeks ahead, but I feel like the team is holding up pretty well. In the communications department where I work, we’ve been at this pretty much nonstop since early February. Nebraska was one of the very first areas to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. We had a number of people who came from the cruise ship who were quarantined here and so we had a significant role to play in that. The communications had been ongoing for quite some time here for us. It’s been an around the clock job, but it can be rewarding at times because we know the work we’re doing matters. People are looking to us for information, and being able to provide that is why are you getting into communications

Chuck Gose: You and the people you care about are doing okay?

Paul Baltes: We are, yeah. It’s an interesting time. I have a son who’s a freshman in college and one who’s a senior in high school. One just moved out, one’s high school senior year just abruptly ended, but everybody’s doing well. I think that fortunate nature of our situation isn’t lost on us because we see the hardship around that other people are going. In the same breath that I’m saying our team has been working nonstop for a couple of months now, that’s not a complaint. We’re grateful that we have the opportunity to do that because we know so many people have been negatively impacted and really abruptly by the economic fallout of this, on top of the concern for their health and well-being.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, I saw some great advice that, if a manager goes to an employee and asks how you’re doing and they say, okay, don’t take that as the answer. Dig deeper, because nobody’s really doing just… we’re all probably just doing okay, but we’re all trying to get better during all this.

Paul Baltes: We actually had, and one of the things I’ll talk about is our regular town hall forums that we’ve been doing with our employees and our colleagues, our physicians, and really anybody who works here and wants to listen. We’re doing these every week. One of the things we’ve been trying to pay attention to each week is that, just the well-being component of it, and not just talking about well, the symptoms are this, the latest research shows this. It’s really that, how are you doing? We had the director of behavioral health come and speak a couple of weeks ago. As he was going through like, these are normal reactions to a crisis like this, you might… and I’m sitting there going, as the person who helps coordinate that meeting, I’m sure they’re going like, yes, yes, yes, yes. I’m not providing patient care, but you feel that stress no matter what.

Paul Baltes: You don’t have to work in healthcare and feel that stress. Everybody feels it to some degree, I think. Everybody looks forward to when it starts to ramp down and then hopefully, at some point, in the near future goes away.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. You said that you and your team had been working on this since early February. I think that might be a little bit surprising, but also comforting to a lot of people because for a lot of us, the impact of this, we didn’t really feel it until about mid-March. Since that time in February, I know you guys are probably used to different crisis in different ways. One thing I’m curious about is how do you manage communicating and prepping during a crisis, communicating during a crisis but also communicating the normal things as operating as a business during all that time?

Paul Baltes: Yeah, I think that’s an excellent question, and honestly, you struggle with that because we had one of those forums just yesterday and our chief operating officer was saying, the ratio of coronavirus patients versus non-coronavirus patients who we’re caring for in our hospitals and clinics, there are a lot more regular patients out there than there are COVID patients. The COVID stuff obviously takes up a lot of the oxygen because it’s such an impact on the entire operation from every corner of what we do has been impacted by it, and again, that’s true for, you don’t have to be in healthcare for that, that’s true for a lot of places. Well, we’ve really tried to not lose sight of the other stuff that people count on us to do. There are still people who are unfortunately being diagnosed with cancer. There are still people who are having strokes.

Paul Baltes: We actually shared a story, just this week, of okay the first pediatric CAR-T cell patient, which is a very cutting edge cancer treatment, first one in the state. She’s a very young child, and went home from the hospital. That was huge, obviously for that family, but for progression in cancer care, and that this is now available here in our state for children, young children, and nothing to do with coronavirus. When we put that out on our social media, the response from people, not just affiliated with us, but just regular people, it was like, oh what a great thing. People are thirsty for those good news stories that don’t necessarily tie directly in with the COVID outbreak.

Chuck Gose: Now, when you’re giving these updates to employers, another thing I’m curious about is, who is the best spokesperson? You had mentioned your director of behavioral health was one person who came up and spoke, but who are you putting out in front to update employees and comfort employees during this time?

Paul Baltes: The consistent voices that we’ve had at all those forums, and this is true externally as well. Our CEO just so happens to be a great communicator. He also happens to be a pathologist by background, so it’s really helpful when conversations about how lab test for coronavirus works. He knows the answer to that question. We also have our pathology chair who contributes, but the other consistent voice is the director of our division of infectious diseases who also directs the hospital’s epidemiology or excuse me, infection control program, and then the executive director of bio-preparedness who’s a nurse by background.

Paul Baltes: The two of them are as knowledgeable as you’ll find, they’re as comfortable talking to Anderson Cooper on CNN as they are talking to employees in the room, or like we’re doing here, over video conference. The ability to speak in terms that people understand and to have a message of reassurance, is one of the nuances, and my colleagues who in healthcare communications can probably attest to the fact that it’s not a skill that everybody has. Physicians are often used to speaking to other physicians or med students or scientific peers. Not everybody has a gift for speaking in a way that everybody can understand. Just because we work in healthcare does not mean that we all have a science background. One of the things that both of those people, I should call them out by name Mark Rob is the physician who’s in charge of infectious diseases and Shelly Schwedhelm is an executive director of bio-preparedness.

Paul Baltes: There’s a good chance you’ve seen them or read some quotes from them because they’re very active, and both really understand the importance of communication in a time like this. It’s really built into all of the preparedness drills and plans built into the DNA of the organization, that you can’t have a pandemic response and tell your PR and communications people to go wait in the corner. It’s not going to work. We’re seeing that now, that people have a real thirst for information. The old adage in public relations about you got to fill in those gaps or they’ll fill in themselves and where there is a vacuum of information, it will get filled with something. It may be from Twitter, it may be from the conspiracy theorist down the street. We have a responsibility and we fall active to help educate people with what we know.

Paul Baltes: That’s my long answer of saying we’re really fortunate that we have experts in this field, in public health, in infectious diseases who also just so happen to be great communicators. Theres another member of the infectious diseases faculty who has been a regular contributor. We’ve been doing weekly Facebook live interviews with a member of our communications team, interviews physician. We’re taking questions that are coming in from the public and the information changes week to week. It’s really important not to just have… Well, we did that back on March 3rd. The information today is way different. That’s how quickly this is changing. Having somebody there who is conversational but also very knowledgeable. We did one of those this weekend, and a reporter in town said, Dr. Coker is like your neighbor, but really, really well-educated neighbor.

Paul Baltes: That’s the music to a healthcare communicator’s ears because it’s somebody who’s approachable. You’re talking to them over the fence in your backyard, but also happens to have an advanced degree and done a ton of research in infectious diseases so they know what they’re talking about.

Chuck Gose: That’s a great segue to my next question. How do you deal with conflicting information, either conflicting because what was different yesterday is different from today versus stuff that’s just inaccurate out there? Because I was thinking about it from a standpoint, you have a lot of employees there who are healthcare professionals, you also have a lot of employees who work in healthcare, but they do not have a healthcare background there. How do you keep people up-to-date with the most accurate information knowing that the communities that they are a part of might be looking to them for answers because they know where they work and what they’re a part of?

Paul Baltes: Yeah, it’s one of the things when… To backtrack a little bit, Nebraska Medicine was one of the few healthcare systems that was involved in the Ebola response five and a half years ago now. One of the things I would talk about after that experience was no matter how big your PR team is, your PR team is your whole organization, whether you know it or not, because that hypothetical conversation between neighbors over the fence in the backyard or while you’re going to the mailbox or whatever, you may not be a communicator by background, but if your neighbor knows you work at the hospital, they might say, hey what’s really going on over there? Do I need to be worried about this?

Paul Baltes: If the answer is yeah, I don’t know, they don’t tell me anything. That’s not a good answer. You amplify that times how many people. We have a number of channels that we use to communicate regularly with our staff, understanding that everybody absorbs information differently. We’re actively looking at changing things up, but not right now. It’s not a great time to change things up right now. We’re doing these weekly forums that had been monthly. We accelerated that cadence to weekly. It’s a 90-minute meeting once a week. It’s led by our CEO, our entire senior leadership team is present. Then also our physician and fire preparedness experts are part of that. The biggest part of that forum is taking questions. It’s Q&A.

Paul Baltes: We encourage people to submit ahead of time. We encourage people to use the Q&A function here within the video conferencing system. I’m like an octopus reading questions. I’ve got a member of our department who’s helping triage those questions and sort them out and asking questions of our HR leadership team, our nursing leadership, our infectious diseases team. A lot of those questions are, hey, I heard that, is this true? One of the regular that we’ve been getting was the controversy or questions around the hydroxy chloric weeping, which has been a national story. The answer from our infectious diseases team is, we don’t know. It needs to be investigated. We can’t say for sure it doesn’t work or we can’t say for sure that it does. As scientists, you have to investigate it.

Paul Baltes: That helps people sort that out and cut through the controversy around some of those things. Now, some of the other stuff they can say for sure that’s not true or yes, there is something there and it warrants further investigation. But between the weekly forum, we also do a daily eNewsletter. It’s basically a blog format. We push it out by email and it’s hosted on the front page of our intranet. In theory, every day, when somebody logs in, they’re seeing the three or four top stories. They have the ability to ask questions or post comments and then people answer those questions there for everyone else to see.

Chuck Gose: Which I think about it, it was the other evening I watched a little bit of a town hall that CNN did, and people can submit questions. I was thinking about it the same way that, if employees were submitting questions and they were very basic. You could tell they were asking out of insecurity and fear and unknown and looking for assurances. I can imagine that that’s happened across every organization and every company if people are being given the opportunity to ask those questions, or if there’s even people to give those answers to people.

Paul Baltes: That’s the value I think in those meetings is having that interaction. I always tell people, our organization is like a small city. In Nebraska, it’s a medium sized city. It’s bigger than a lot of cities in Nebraska. We have 8,000 employees plus on our health system. Then, the university, our academic partner, which is our sibling in all of this. We’re separate organizations, but we’re really the same altogether. The med school and all of the other health sciences, education and research functions. We total us all up, your’e pushing 13,000 people. That’s a small city. You have people of all different backgrounds and education levels. Not everybody wears a white coat with a stethoscope around their neck.

Paul Baltes: Many do, but not everybody. Not everybody has time to stay up on the news, so if they’re catching fragments of stories, well, I heard this and I heard that, what better way to get an answer to that than to ask the person who’s the chief of that division and say, I heard that this is a biological weapon that escaped from a lab. Is that true? He can say categorically, that is not true. It’s been researched. The genome has been sequenced. It’s not true. They’ll get a succinct answer like that. It really helps build confidence.

Chuck Gose: You had mentioned some of the organization’s past experience with Ebola. From a healthcare communications standpoint, not the medicine, the communication side of it, how different is this crisis than others? How much has it impacted you and the team there than other crises have?

Paul Baltes: We said early on, my media relations colleague and me, he and I were side by side on Ebola as well with the rest of our team, but this media relations guy is sort of the frontline contact for everybody. Early on, he was like, this is going to be way more than Ebola. I think the biggest difference is this impacts everybody. The Ebola response was exceedingly newsworthy, but you were never going to catch Ebola at the movie theater or at the mall. This is different. That’s a possibility here. I think people realizing it, it changes the face of how we communicate. That’s the biggest thing, that it really is a global pandemic. The Ebola thing was a global pandemic and that it impacted concentrated pockets of certain areas, but there were never more than a couple three or four Ebola patients in the US at a time, and they were in the hospital.

Paul Baltes: This is a different disease. That was one of the things we were consciously communicating early on. However, the core tenants of our communication policy was largely the same in that, when somebody calls, if a reporter calls or an employee has a question, you answer them, you be as forthcoming as you’re able to be because people need to know, people want to know. Like I said earlier, communications is a key part of a response to an epidemic, a pandemic because lack of information leads to lack of security, I think. The more we can share with people what’s really going on, the better they’ll be able to make decisions for their own lives and their families.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. I see it across organizations, whether healthcare related or not, seeing communicators really step up and be that trusted source or putting trusted sources out there. It goes back to a previous episode I had with Tamara Rodman from Edelman on where they did a specific study around trust in COVID-19 information, and it said employer comms were the most trusted source of information. That’s where people go for the updates.

Paul Baltes: That’s a really good point because we would get invitations to speak at communications conferences over the year. In fact, I was in Chicago in November speaking at a conference about Ebola response, our experience there. I was thinking, this information’s old. It’s five years old now and I really need to work on getting a new material, but some new perspectives on this. If, in any way, I caused any of this, I’m sorry, but I think back to the point, it was, when you go to those conferences, it’s not just hospital communicators who are there. It’s public schools. There was a public library system who was present at this conference. The point that I always tried to make was that the Ebola is an example.

Paul Baltes: You’re not going to get it, even if you’re in health care, the chances of you getting an Ebola patient walking in your door, very, very slim. Something else could happen though. Pay attention to the core and most of it is just common sense and logic. Those core beliefs in tenets of communication will serve you well. Whether you are a construction company, whether you’re a large hospital system or a small community clinic or you’re a public school. There’s a crisis that keeps you up at night. I always try to leave people with some homework from those conferences like, when you leave here, think about what’s the crisis that gives you the night sweats and then go back and talk to your boss and say, how are we prepared for an IT breach or security breach? A bad guy with a gun, a water leak. Something. What is it that keeps you up at night and how do you respond to that?

Paul Baltes: It doesn’t have to be a huge three ring binder full of here’s what we’re going to do. It could be a one page outline of like, if this then this. I think a lot of people have learned, hopefully not the hard way, but through the last several months that a crisis plan is very necessary.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. I’ve joked with a few communicators that there were probably a lot of crisis plans dusted off during this, when they opened the first page, it probably had fax numbers on it of what to use. Few people look at those and keep those up-to-date.

Paul Baltes: Well, and I think maybe one of the other positive outcomes of this whole thing when it starts to settle down a little bit is the importance practicing. I’ve been with Nebraska Med for a little over 12 years now, and from the very beginning our communications and media relations teams were brought in on drills for our bio-containment unit, for IT security. We did facilities drills of what would happen if we had a pipe break or the air conditioning quit in this part of the building? How would we move patients to another part of the building? How would we communicate that? Doing those tabletop drills or actual in the unit drills is incredibly important and valuable because when it actually happens, and it will, some form of something’s going to happen at some point, you will have some perspective on how to respond, who will help you respond?

Paul Baltes: Who in your leadership team or who in your facilities team or your IT department, who’s that conduit to get the information you need as a communicator to tell people what they need to know? Those drills are vitally important and I hope people will… if their communications folks don’t have a seat at the table during those, I would strongly encourage them to find a way to get a seat because it matters. Like you said, whether you’re in healthcare or something else, this is largely a health care driven, crisis, but it’s affecting everybody, health care or not, so we all have to be ready.

Chuck Gose: One thing I would like a little bit of clarity, my own part, this next question. I’ve seen some controversy around this, around employees sharing their stories on their personal social media. You talked about, there’s a person across the fence, their neighbor asks them a question and then they give them an answer that might be the accurate one or it might be, man, I don’t know what’s happening. I’m not saying this happened at Nebraska Med. But just as an expert in the field, have you given advice to employees around social? Is it just a reinforcement of what the existing policy was or was there a change to say, look, we have to be a little more careful because there are more eyes on what we’re doing?

Paul Baltes: In fact, I was trading emails on this very subject with somebody just yesterday asking for some clarification. We’ve really just, like you said, we’ve just doubled down on our existing policy, which is really rooted in no photos, no video in patient care areas where somebody identity or a personal health information could be visible or could be revealed.

Chuck Gose: That’s how it is every day there, I would imagine.

Paul Baltes: Every day. Exactly. That’s not something special. That was one of the things that we wanted to say that, just because we’re in the middle of this very high-profile crisis and everybody is, we’re not deviating from that core message. Now also, part of our policy doesn’t include what people can say on Twitter or what people can say on Facebook. We’re not saying you have to say nice things about the organization. With this many people working here, we wouldn’t dream of trying to police what everybody says, but also, it’s just not possible. Again, back to the transparency of communication, we hope that we’re doing a good enough job that when people take to their personal Instagram or Twitter account or whatever, they can relay the information that they’re getting right from those liable sources, those decision makers. There isn’t ambiguity.

Paul Baltes: That’s not to say that there may be some employees out there who are saying bad things about work right now. It’s a stressful time. I understand it. To answer the question, we largely have not adapted our social media policy in any way. One of the things that we did, we have been approached by some news organizations and others about having people do video diaries on the front lines, in the emergency department, in the ICU. We had decided to say thanks, but no thanks to that. I know other hospitals have done it and have provided very valuable perspective from those front lines to help people see what’s really going on. This isn’t to say that they’ve made a bad decision in doing that. I think, again, that perspective is very valuable.

Paul Baltes: For us, we weighed the pros and cons and said, we’re not going to do that at this point. Now, some people, again, there may be people doing that on their own and we just have to trust that they’re following the policy that has been shared with them is part of the core of being a health care professional, is that you don’t do anything that’s going to jeopardize the privacy of your patients. There are probably people who are sharing their experiences from the front lines privately, but we’re counting on the fact that they’re not revealing any private information when they’re doing that.

Chuck Gose: When kicked this off, we talked about one good thing coming out of this is people checking in on each other. The other good thing is people showing appreciation for those on the front line. From me and the SocialChorus team, Paul to you and the Nebraska Med team, thank you for all the work that you guys have done day in and day out during COVID-19 before, after. It’s absolutely amazing. I see that as something no different than we see how first responders are thought of post 911, I think, and that changed how people viewed that for those professions. I think this is going to increase people’s appreciation for that medical community even more.

Paul Baltes: I hope it does that. I hope people also realize that, in addition to the people we think of as health care workers, the doctors and the nurses, there are people who are right there in those patient rooms who are cleaning up the rooms, they’re in charge, and disinfecting those rooms is a very important job right now. People delivering food to patient rooms, people doing respiratory therapy in those rooms, those people are right there. I hope when everybody’s talking about appreciation for health care workers, they’re thinking of those folks too, because they are right there, and it’s a brave thing to do to go to work these days.

Chuck Gose: One of my favorite books is a book called the Checklist Manifesto, and it talks about the value of checklists in healthcare and in hospitals. It specifically cites that surgeries are only as successful as a person who cleaned the room prior to it and all those processes that go into play, it’s more than just the people with their hands on the patients. It’s the entire team there that makes an impact.

Paul Baltes: It is. I can think of a couple of stories just right off the top of my head that I’ve been involved with here where some of those, the housekeeping staff, the environmental services staff, made a real connection with their patients and they think of them as their patients. It’s not just the doctor’s patient or the nurse’s patient or the physical therapist’s patient. Those certainly are too. But those colleagues feel like that’s my patient. They have a real connection with them, especially for somebody who’s in the hospital for a long time. It matters to that patient that it matters as much as the relationship they have with the clinician. It’s a really good point.

Chuck Gose: Absolutely. Well, the podcast is called Culture, Comms and Cocktails, Paul. We can end this on a positive note. We did there with showing gratuity to everyone involved. Gratitude to everyone involved. What is your favorite cocktail, Paul? If not favorite cocktail, where to get your favorite cocktail?

Paul Baltes: I’m an old-fashioned man.

Chuck Gose: Good man. Good man.

Paul Baltes: I came late to the cocktail game, but I was in grad school a few years ago and we would frequent some of the bars in the downtown Denver area afterwards for happy hour after class was out. One of my teammates in our group, he’s an orthopedic surgeon. I was ordering something. I didn’t know from drinks. I said gin and tonic. He stopped the server at this bar and said, this guy needs an old-fashion. Bring him an old fashion, it’s on me. That’s how the love affair with the old-fashion started. It’s a once a week thing, keep it special. The simplicity of a drink like that after a long week, it’s good.

Chuck Gose: I will say there’s nothing wrong with the gin and tonic, but I do enjoy an old-fashion. Even to the point, where we have since purchased their own cocktail shaker to do some other fancy cocktails. I had known one of those before, but we are waiting on Amazon to deliver one of those kitchen torches so we can burn the edges of the orange for the old-fashion. In lieu of being able to go out and enjoy a nice cocktail, we’re doing our best to try to do those here at home. When it’s right, like you said.

Paul Baltes: Yes. I made something. I may doom myself by saying this anywhere outside of my own kitchen, but I think it was a Thanksgiving a few years ago and we had some friends over, and I was playing mad scientists with, its cherry or cranberry 7-Up. I think it’s cherry 7-Up. A little vodka, a little amaretto and a lime. I made the mistake of giving it a bizarro. I don’t even remember what the origin, but I said this, this drink is called the cabana boy. Cheers. I made up my own drink, and every time my friend Carrie comes over, she gets a cabana boy.

Chuck Gose: I think of the 30 plus episodes of none of this, Paul, I think you’re the first one to bring about an original creation. I like that.

Paul Baltes: Really? Wow. I didn’t give away the secret, the ratios.

Chuck Gose: Well, that’s something we’ll let people play around with, let them figure that part out.

Paul Baltes: That’s right. Yeah, be your own mad scientist. My wife’s in the other room going, I can’t believe he’s talking about a cabana boy.

Chuck Gose: Paul, again, thank you so much for the time. Thank you for all the work you and your team have done at Nebraska Med, and be well.

Paul Baltes: Thank you very much. I appreciate the conversation and hope everybody as well, also.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms & Cocktails on Apple podcast, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you like to listen. When you do, hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture, Comms and 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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