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Change Communication in Senior Living

Agency: Hey, just checking in. With your expansion moving forward, did you let your neighbors know the single cottages directly behind them will soon be a multistory complex?

Community A: We’ve got this! Our neighbors love us; everything will be fine.

Narrator: But everything wasn’t fine.

Change for any organization is both inevitable and essential. In our industry, new services, programs, technology, personnel, capital improvements, and even comprehensive rebrands ensure communities meet the changing expectations of residents and stay an ever-so-important step ahead of competition.

Unfortunately, this necessity to evolve directly opposes the fact that most of us are creatures of habit and change can be highly uncomfortable.

So how do you balance these two opposing forces – the need to change versus our resistance to it? One important way is through communication. Timely, transparent, thoughtful communication.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, as Community A can attest to, it’s often not. Through inexperience, naiveté or ill-preparedness, organizations can quickly see a positive announcement sour or a manageable situation turn into a full-blown crisis.

Change communication can be separated into two categories – proactive and reactive. (However, some PR professionals will argue no communication is truly reactive if you’ve prepared a proper crisis communication plan.) What often separates the two is predictability and urgency.

Proactive change communication tends to be community-driven, such as redevelopments, acquisitions or rebrands. Timing and distribution of messages are largely dictated by the organization.

Reactive change communication, such as natural disasters, misconduct or legal issues, is just the opposite. These situations are often outside the community’s control and pose an immediate threat to safety, health or business integrity.

Regardless of whether you’re preparing for change or reacting to it, a dedicated communication strategy is the most effective way to make sure your messages are delivered and digested. Change breeds anxiety, which can breed fear, which can breed resistance. It doesn’t matter how positive an announcement is – if it’s not communicated effectively, you risk your messages being diluted, misinterpreted or even ignored completely.

At GlynnDevins, we help clients facing change see the forest through the trees – that is, the whole and complete picture. To build a comprehensive strategy, we employ the four “D’s” – discover, define, develop and deploy:

  • Discover. This is the exploration phase. What’s the situation, what questions do people have, and what information do they need and expect to know?
  • Define. These are the people you’re trying to reach and influence. Is this going to impact only team members in the health center, or does it have the potential to affect broader audiences like your neighbors, professional network, or leads and prospects?
  • Develop. These are your messages and materials. What exactly do you want to say, how does it differ from one audience to the next, and what channels are most appropriate to get your message across?
  • Deploy. This is your timeline. How soon do you communicate? Who receives information first? Should this be done in person, or will a letter suffice?

Each change presents a unique set of challenges, obstacles and opportunities. No two scenarios are identical, and they shouldn’t be treated as such.

A community in California may have considerable experience with wildfire evacuations, while one in Pennsylvania may not. A system with dozens of properties may have the resources to weather allegations of employee misconduct better than a stand-alone community. Even two communities within the same system will differ greatly in culture, personnel and marketplace.

The communication strategy, and the messages and materials within, should always be customized to the change at hand. Here are five rules to keep in mind:

  • Be timely. Prompt communication is key. It allows you to better control the message where rumor or third parties may otherwise fill the gap.
  • Be genuine. Remember the PR version of the golden rule – communicate with others as you’d wish to be communicated with. Consider the feelings of those you’re speaking with, put yourself in their shoes, and communicate appropriately.
  • Be transparent. Transparency builds trust. If there’s the possibility that change will bring negative outcomes, say so. Being untruthful or omitting difficult details will only exasperate your audiences and contribute to skepticism down the road. Honesty is your ally, always.
  • Be simple. “We’re looking to achieve better organizational synergy and find more innovative solutions through reallocation of cross-departmental assets and resources.” Huh? Gather the information people need to know, and then share it in plain, simple language, so there’s no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding.
  • Be mindful. The court of law versus the court of public opinion. If you’re facing a crisis, it’s possible to win the legal battle, but lose the PR war. Be conscious of this and pick your battles wisely.

Whether you embrace it or not, change is coming. According to the 2018 LeadingAge Ziegler 200, nearly 72% of LZ 200 industry organizations reported intentions to expand or reposition in the future. That signals a significant potential for change, and this doesn’t even include the myriad other proactive and reactive opportunities waiting on your community’s doorstep.

As my mom always says, you can’t bury your head in the sand. Adequate preparation and a well-formed communication plan can be the difference between your messages striking a chord or striking out.

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