The Australian Private Hospitals Association (APHA) undertook initiatives to positively re-position the sector in relation to stakeholder and public awareness.
Backed by research, APHA drove communications vehicles generating renewed impetus for the sector’s role and relevance.
A ‘constant drip’ campaign, whereby key messages were delivered and backed-up via layered communications tools, resources and materials, ensured messages were received, reinforced and achieved resonance.
APHA communications established new relevance for the Association and acceptance of the mainstream role private hospitals now play in Australian healthcare delivery.
Healthcare was acutely on the public agenda over 2002-2005. Myriad interests vie to affect policy outcomes and consumer choices. Private hospitals struggled for differentiation – in public vs. private health, and from private health insurers.
Research showed “private health” equated to “insurance issues” in stakeholder and public perceptions. APHA wanted to positively engage in the healthcare debate, receive recognition for the sector’s contribution and build support for its growing role.
Establishing these credentials could assist in pursuing the sector’s goals on policy areas – i.e. defending the 30% rebate on private health insurance (which was under attack), retaining the Second Tier Default Benefit (scheduled for abolition) and enshrining portability of private health insurance (which had diminished).
Overcoming negative perceptions and lack of awareness of private hospitals required demonstrating the substantial contribution of private hospitals to healthcare and leveraging this into political and community support, while harnessing and growing the collective power of APHA’s membership through establishing ‘value-adding’ credentials.
Research was vital to demonstrating and communicating the role private hospitals play in modern healthcare, identifying triggers for target audiences and shaping messages.
Research involved contacting members and establishing detailed databases (in 2002). A ‘ring around’ of members exposed a lack of relevance of APHA, its role and value. This precipitated a membership communications drive, including surveys of members underlining the ‘value-adding’ imperative.
APHA participated in TQA Research’s biennial survey, Health Care and Insurance – Australia over 1995-2001. These were used in building stakeholder engagement and communications objectives.
APHA’s desire to differentiate private hospitals from health insurance saw it engage Crosby Textor (2003) to drill down further to inform specific APHA directions, messages and track changes in public perceptions using qualitative and quantitative methods.
A perceptual audit was undertaken (Crosby Textor, 2004) to ascertain stakeholder attitudes (politicians, media, AMA, etc). APHA’s internal member surveys (2002-2004) identified and monitored member needs, generating input and feedback.
Substantive research demonstrating that private hospitals perform the majority of surgery and essential complex treatments in Australia, was sourced from independent bodies (ABS, AIHW, etc).
APHA commissioned Access Economics to conduct substantive research into key industry issues – the 30% rebate (2002) and enshrining portability (2005), to establish intellectual rigour.
- Media: proactive engagement of mainstream media to raise the profile of private hospitals among stakeholders and the community, using credible, independent data. Thus, curtailing philosophical debate to communicate facts that resonate.
- Political: proactive, constructive engagement to gain recognition for private hospitals’ role, while advancing industry issues, fostering greater understanding and appreciation of the sector’s importance.
- Membership: engage, arm, mobilise and add-value to private hospitals and grow the membership-base.
- Industry: engage stakeholders – the AHIA (to advance common goals), AMA (use its profile) and CHA (with 25% of private hospitals as members, advancing ‘whole-of-industry’ positions).
What makes this Communication Strategy ‘strategic’ – rather than ‘ad hoc’ – is the ‘constant drip’ approach, whereby messages are delivered and backed-up via layered communications tools, ensuring messages are received, reinforced and resonate.
APHA’s rolling Communication Strategy (over 2002-03, 2004 and 2005-06), developed tools, resources and measures to advocate and disseminate messages direct to key stakeholders, assisted by improved mass media exposure.
The strategy was two-pronged. Firstly, a ‘macro’ promotion and lobbying campaign to raise awareness at the national level. Secondly, a local membership ‘micro’ campaign, driven by APHA providing materials, targeting MPs, Senators and local and state-based media.
Messages meshed from bottom up, and top down, achieving greater saturation and understanding.
In 2002 journalists, including health reporters in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, did not know APHA existed.
This, along with the need to raise awareness of, and promote, private hospitals’ contribution, saw Media Resource Kits initiated, sourcing independent, authoritative and up-to-date facts and figures to demonstrate the sector’s activity. These became annual resources (updated throughout the year) which were positively received by journalists.
APHA undertook to frame media comment based on ‘newsworth’, informed by market research triggers, enhancing proactive engagement and relevance. This gave APHA entrée for back-briefing and fostering productive media relationships.
Pursuing these relationships, APHA not only better promoted private hospitals and Association issues, but effectively managed issues to avert negative publicity – clearing up misconceptions and misunderstandings before they became ‘bad news stories’.
In 2003 APHA initiated annual Private Hospital Resource Kits for all Government MPs and Senators. These materials, and the proactive approach to developing relationships through them, were essential in demonstrating ‘political relevance’ to politicians.
Providing politicians with information on private hospital activity specific to their electorate made the sector relevant to them. Armed with these facts and figures, politicians could argue private hospitals’ role with confidence, and see APHA as a valuable resource.
The Kits also created a political synergy – supporting the Federal Government’s private health initiatives (i.e. the 30% rebate and Lifetime Health Cover), adding to their usefulness at the political coalface.
In addition to lobbying, Parliamentary Breakfasts were held each year to brief Government MPs and Senators on private hospital activity and share research findings to advance messages.
Regular, informative and useful communications between APHA and members was essential given feedback from members in 2002 labelled APHA “distant”, “hierarchical”, “failing to inform members” and “not delivering visible benefits”.
Creating and maintaining a comprehensive database of member contacts – contacts that proved reliable for member input and feedback – established a cohesive network for campaign development and exchanging information.
This saw APHA regularly sourced by members for advice, guidance and direction, while Member Resource Kits ensured consistent messages.
These were built upon, providing new resources through this network to arm and mobilise members on specific issues, for example, it was pivotal to the success of APHA’s bid to reverse the Government’s decision to abolish the Second Tier Default Benefit (2003-04).
Providing members with shell letters, backgrounders, Q&As, media releases, articles, columns, contacts and advice, saw local level pressure, awareness and concern generated. This dovetailed with APHA efforts in Canberra to successfully deliver key messages at the national level.
Regular engagement with members via monthly Calendar of Events, bi-monthly Private Hospital magazine member input, circulation of media releases, member updates, advice, and web-based resources saw better relationships fostered and maintained between members and their Association.
Other materials armed and informed members including: Fact Sheets; APHA Media Guide; Community Consultation: A Framework; APHA Market Research; lobbying contacts, resources for State/Territory and federal politicians; annual Private Hospitals: The Facts promotional posters; weekly APHA Media Clipping Service; weekly electronic APHA News Service; and issues-specific Members ONLY Bulletins.
APHA sought to align its interests with other groups in pursuit of industry issues, namely the AMA and CHA on portability and Second Tier Default Benefits, and with AHIA on the 30% rebate.
For example, in July 2004, APHA and AHIA joined forces to promote the 30% rebate to overcome negative misconceptions about its effectiveness, producing and distributing 65,000 brochures to APHA members to ensure patients, their families and hospital staff, were well informed.
Greater co-operation between APHA and AHIA saw a joint industry taskforce formed: The Private Health Industry Discussion Group. APHA compiled the group’s Information Kit, detailing facts about private hospital activity and market research messages, which guided the taskforce’s strategies, aligning them with APHA communications objectives.
- Positive media coverage rose from 193 ‘prominent, on message’ metropolitan hits in 2002/03 to 1,645 in 2004/05. Coverage reported private hospitals perform the majority of surgery, along with its complex nature, as a ‘matter of fact’ [Appendix A1a,b,c]. A far cry from 2002 when media had no idea, nor cared, how much of the patient load private hospitals carried [Appendix A2].
- Politicians, most notably the Prime Minister [Appendix A3a,b] and Federal Health Minister [Appendices A4a,b, A8 and A12], regularly quoted APHA data, and came to rely on APHA in proliferating messages [Appendix A5], as did Ministers and backbenchers [Appendix A6a,b,c,d].
- APHA membership rose from 52% to 75% of the sector (2002 to 2005). Hospitals recognised APHA as useful and empowering [Appendix A7a,b].
- This heightened awareness and appreciation for private hospitals’ contribution saw other APHA issues resolved favourably. The Government reaffirmed its commitment to the 30% rebate, expanding it for older Australians [Appendix A8], abandoned plans to abolish the Second Tier Default Benefit [Appendix A9] and enshrined portability [Appendix A10].
- Between 2002-2005 Private Hospital magazine circulation increased 75% and monthly website hits rose from 4,000 to peak at 311,000 – up 7,500% [Appendix A11].
- Private health insurance membership, long declining, turned around. In 2005, the largest number of Australians in 20 years had private health cover – over 10,000,000 [Appendix A12]. This came amidst a renewed value attributed to private hospital care by Government and the broader community.
AGAINST PRIMARY OBJECTIVES
- Media: Achieved APHA’s highest positive profile, demonstrably improving coverage with greater and better-informed coverage building political, stakeholder and community awareness. APHA is now positioned as a ‘go to’ organisation for media comment.
- Political: Exceeded expectations. APHA secured a double value-add with the Prime Minister, Federal Health Minister and backbenchers seizing upon APHA messages and relying on APHA data. This added bonus gave APHA messages greater resonance and credibility in the public domain.
- This exposure saw APHA gain traction on key issues. The 30% rebate is now broadly accepted, the Second Tier Default Benefit was retained, and portability of private health insurance enshrined.
- Membership: Engaging, arming and mobilising members saw APHA instigate, develop, coordinate and maintain a concerted promotion and lobbying program. APHA was ‘seen’ championing private hospital interests, boosting membership as hospitals were empowered to engage on issues affecting their operations.
- Industry: Strategic alliances secured key outcomes. At first, APHA sought to engage others to bolster its relevance. Today those relationships thrive, with APHA now sought for third-party advocacy.
- Communications tools: Overhauling APHA communications saw internal member networks moulded into cohesive assets, while APHA’s website and Private Hospital magazine are widely used resources. Boosting member interaction, website usage and magazine circulation reinforced APHA messages and relevance.
- Value to consumers: These communications imperatives assisted the level of private health insurance membership achieving a 20-year high – securing private hospitals’ customer-base.
AGAINST SECONDARY OBJECTIVES:
- APHA and industry standing: new relevance for APHA and acceptance of the mainstream role private hospitals now play in Australian healthcare, was entrenched across all stakeholder groups.
Individually, each initiative delivered impressive outcomes. But combined in a multi-layered and complementary communications program, they embodied a powerful and highly successful campaign – delivering key messages to target audiences, achieving resonance for messages, and influencing and changing attitudes, behaviours, decisions and choices.