In 2014, Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt released an ad campaign that tugged at the heartstrings of parents and inspired confidence in their brand. It would eventually be featured on traditional and social media and win multiple advertising awards. It also brought together two members of the External Advisory Board of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network in a challenging hospital-patient situation.
The campaign featured several 30-second spots of parents going the extra mile for their child: A mom feigning surprise at her son jumping out to scare her. A dad dressing up in a tuxedo to have tea with his daughter. A mom driving her daughter and a van full of loud pre-teen girls to the movies.
The campaign also included print ads of parents dressing up like pirates, baking, roasting s’mores, and wearing flowers in their hair, all apparently at the behest of their children.
The tagline: “You’ll do anything for your child. So will we. Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital.”
It hit all the right heartstrings.
But not everyone’s reaction to the campaign was as the hospital expected.
In the exchange below, two members of our External Advisory Board discuss their unique interaction with respect to the ad campaign: Cynthia Floyd Manley, Content and Social Media Strategy Director at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and Melissa Hogan, a rare disease advocate and parent to a child who receives care at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. They also demonstrate how respectful inquiry and empathetic listening can defuse a charged situation and lead to a constructive outcome.
Melissa, how did you first hear about the campaign and what was your reaction?
Melissa Hogan: A friend actually tagged me on social media with the ad featuring the dad dressing in a tuxedo for tea with his daughter. Prior to that, I had shared with several friends about the challenges we’d encountered for the past two years in getting my son’s clinical trial transferred from North Carolina Children’s Hospital to Vanderbilt.
As background, our youngest son Case has a very rare genetic disease called Hunter Syndrome. He was first diagnosed by genetics at Vanderbilt in 2009 and then started receiving an infusion there every Thursday. He also was seeing approximately eight specialists on a regular basis at the hospital. We’ve always been extremely pleased with the care he’s received there over the years.
But in 2010, he entered a Phase I clinical trial where the only site was out-of-state, so we had to fly for visits ranging from 3 to 11 days each month.
I was flying out of state with my cognitively impaired son, requiring someone to help me as well as someone at home to take care of my other two children (my husband travels for work), so participating in the trial was very challenging for our family. But the experimental medicine was the only thing preventing my son from cognitive regression with an early death before his teens, so we had no choice if we wanted to try to save his life.
It was logistically, emotionally, and relationally challenging to maintain such a schedule, even though my son’s life depended on it. After a year and a half of these monthly flights, we sought for Vanderbilt to open a site to begin treating my son, but we ran into several roadblocks. We patiently pursued this for approximately two years, and without making significant progress, felt like it would never happen until a friend showed me this campaign. I felt like this situation was their chance to put their money where their mouth was and make this happen for my son. By this time, we’d been flying monthly for care for almost four years.
I commented on one of their social media posts about our situation, and then wrote a letter detailing the history of our story, the request to transfer the clinical trial to Vanderbilt, and how I felt like their ad campaign intersected with our story. I sent the letter to those who had been involved in the process so far, as well as a few above them.
Were you involved in the development of the ad campaign and or the decision to use it on social media?
Cynthia Manley: I was among those in our department who was consulted in the campaign development. We all loved the creative, especially the tea party spot. The sweetness of the little girl’s voice when she says, “Hi, Daddy” gets me to this day. Our social media team was eager to post the spots to YouTube and share them with our community on Facebook and Twitter.
When you watched the video, did you expect any reactions similar to Ms. Hogan’s? Were you prepared for how you would handle responses like that?
Cynthia Manley: To be honest, I did not. I learned later that this was discussed earlier in the creative development. We realized that in specific situations, “anything” might not be possible, but we also know that for the vast majority of our patients and families, the statement was absolutely and consistently true. As soon as I saw Melissa’s posts, though, I realized how that line was viewed differently in her unique situation.
So after the letter was received, how was the situation handled? Were you pleased with the resolution?
Melissa Hogan: I received a very prompt response after the letter and we arranged a conference call soon thereafter. As I’d always known, Vanderbilt is a top-notch facility who really cares about their patients. In this case, unfortunately we just fell through cracks of personnel changes, communication, and logistics challenges. Once the entire story and its current status was brought to the attention of people that could see the bigger picture, it was arranged for his trial to be transferred within three months. We were extremely happy with the resolution. It has made an immense difference in the quality of our family’s life and my son’s continuity of care. And while we still have to travel out-of-state for certain procedures related to the clinical trial, his home hospital is Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
Cynthia Manley: I reached out to hospital leadership to make them aware of Melissa’s concerns and as I recall, reached out to Melissa to make sure that she knew we had heard her. I was impressed with how responsive our leaders were to the needs of Melissa and her son, but also with how complicated the situation was. I hadn’t realized the resource implications sometimes involved in creating the best possible treatment for each patient and how that sometimes necessitates partnering with other centers, especially where research is involved. The key is setting realistic expectations with patients and families and in marketing messaging.
What advice would you give other health care providers who are responding to patient communications based on one of their marketing campaigns? Or to patients who see a campaign that strikes a chord in them based on their interaction with a health care provider?
Cynthia Manley: We love to get responses when our brand messaging is spot on with a patient or family. We recently saw an iPhone video with two sisters in the back seat of the family car play-acting the dialogue of one of our Children’s After Hours commericals. Of course, that went into the slide deck to present to our CEO!
But when a campaign elicits a response that you don’t expect, my advice is to take a deep breath and listen with empathy. It would be easy to get defensive and say, “well, we didn’t mean it that way.” I would encourage you to instead view it as an opportunity to learn more about the needs of your patient and factor that into how you develop creative in the future.
This experience has made me more acutely aware of the need to think about how creative could be viewed differently depending on the specific situation. This applies to all communications, not just TV campaigns as this was. For instance, we have changed our approach to on-hold messaging to be more sensitive to the fact that person on hold could be a young woman excited to get positive pregnancy test results or someone scared about a cancer diagnosis.
Melissa Hogan: For patients or caregivers who see an ad campaign that strikes them, either in a negative or positive way, my advice is always to give feedback. For positive campaigns, it can be as simple as a like, comment, or share on social media.
If a post or campaign creates negative feelings or feels inconsistent with your experience with that provider, then that is a prime opportunity to respond to the provider and put your experience in context.
With that in mind, first, I would advise a patient or caregiver to take a deep breath as well. Often when we respond in the moment, it only serves to vent our stress and is not constructive to reaching a resolution or achieving change. Our response may not even reach those in the organization who could meet our need if that is indeed possible. But if we can identify the appropriate recipient for our comments, explain our response, as well as any resolution we are seeking to achieve, then we are giving a provider an open door to live up to our expectations and to the brand messaging they’ve shared.
With respect to providers who are hearing from patients or caregivers, I encourage you to listen and engage in collaborative solutions, both internally in your organization and with those giving feedback as well. When patients or caregivers take the time to respond to a post or campaign, especially in a manner that seeks a specific resolution, this is an opportunity to open lines of communication and to uncover matters in your organization that may have otherwise needed attention, but just weren’t highlighted until a particular situation arose.