Tuesday, September 02, 2008

VIHA's problems go much deeper than communications department
Aug. 29, 2008

It’s a poor workman who blames his tools, so let’s hope the Vancouver Island Health Authority rethinks its decision to lay the blame for bad communications on its long-suffering public relations staff.
That VIHA pays $1 million a year to communicate badly is certainly a problem. But if the health authority genuinely believes the root cause of that is due to the communication department not doing its job - well, that goes a long way to explaining why these kind of problems continue to dog VIHA.
I’ve been an observer of the local health scene for many years, having started my work at the Times Colonist in 1989 as the paper’s health reporter. I’ve never lost interest in the subject, or the ongoing communication problems that have plagued whatever entity was running regional health services at a particular point in time.
When I arrived here, the Greater Victoria Hospital Society was running things, under the tightly controlled direction of a former deputy health minister from Saskatchewan, Ken Fyke. Then came Capital Health (subsequently renamed Capital Health Region) to swallow GVHS and other community-based health services in the region, and finally VIHA to engulf everything health-related on the Island.
The GVHS was born from conflict, as local hospitals and their medical staff didn’t go willingly into a top-down amalgamation of regional hospital services. Lots of leaks and brown envelopes from disgruntled hospital staff came my way in those years, evidence of much mistrust in the system.
Is that bad beginning partly to blame for the “communication problems” that have stuck like burrs to every version of the health authority ever since? Tough to say, but I do know that bad communication by the local health authority dates back at least 19 years, and that no overhaul of the communications department is going to touch it.
What I know of health-authority communications staff from my dealings with them over the years is that they’re by and large skilled, professional people doing their best in trying circumstance.
I suspect the current batch know all about good communications. I bet there are times when they’re watching in quiet horror as VIHA walks head-on into yet another populist community uprising led by whatever vulnerable, underdog group is losing services. (Frail seniors, people with severe mental illness, children with disabilities, the sickest addicts - oh, it’s quite a list.)
But what’s a department to do if the bosses have a completely different take on what it means to communicate effectively? With a few notable exceptions (the Victoria Health Project, for instance), the standard communications strategy employed by local health authorities over the years boils down to this: “We dictate, you accept.” I’d like to meet the communications department that could do a bang-up job with a message like that.
A story by Cindy Harnett in this week’s TC gave me new insight into why VIHA so often misses the mark in its communications. In an interview about the pending audit of the communications department, VIHA president Howard Waldner described the closure of Cowichan Lodge as a “good news” story that went bad only because the issue was hijacked by special interest groups and political agendas.
Wow. Does he really believe that? Anyone with their head even partially out of the rabbit hole would have seen that one coming, especially when the lodge’s aging residents were initially given just two months’ notice instead of the one year required under B.C. law.
In VIHA’s defence, there’s no way to come out looking like the good guy when you’re the one ordering old, sick Grandpa to pack up for another move just when he’d finally settled in. But the health authority has a knack for making bad news just a little bit worse as a “communications event” - first by never telling communities what’s up until it’s too late, and then by being completely unprepared for the negative fallout.
There are better ways to do it. The first option, and the one I’d root for: Mitigate disaster from the outset by genuinely consulting with people before making major changes that will affect their lives forever. Adjust plans accordingly.
Option two: At least have the common sense to understand that autocratic, secretive decision-making is a recipe for communications problems. Have a plan for dealing with the backlash that goes beyond blaming special interest groups for raining on your parade. Thin-skinned, defensive responses that deflect blame elsewhere are just so yesterday.
As for your communications department, let ‘em live. You know what they say about shooting the messenger.

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