How Northwell Health is Navigating COVID-19 From an Epicenter

July 8, 2020

Imagine this: You’re the head of Internal Communications at New York state’s largest health care provider and private employer, with 23 hospitals, more than 750 outpatient facilities, and over 70,000 team members. 

Now imagine a global pandemic breaks out, and the U.S. epicenter is right where your health system is located. What do you do?

This is the real-life scenario for Tom Sclafani, Vice President of Internal Communications at Northwell Health. He generously agreed to share his insights from being in the thick of an unprecedented, ever-changing scenario of emergency and crisis communications, news, protocol, and guideline updates. 

We’ve had the good fortune of working with Northwell Health for the past few years, and always admired them as an organization that walks the talk when it comes to caring for and supporting their people. After speaking with Tom, we were even more blown away by the dedication, passion, and heroism demonstrated by Northwell team members. We’re deeply grateful for everything they do. 

We’ve bottled up our conversation with Tom into 4 key takeaways that we hope may help you and your organization — today, tomorrow, or sometime in the future — whenever you find yourself in the face of a crisis.  

“In a crisis, the real personality of an organization comes out. Good organizations rise to the top. I would say that we absolutely did. It’s been a journey. It’s not over yet.”

1. Make a plan — even when you know the unexpected will happen

“Focus on what you can control … be true to your brand and be strategic even in the midst of a scenario that feels out of control,” advises Tom. Many of us in the U.S. associate the March timeframe with COVID-19 — when the pandemic began to emerge in pockets all over the U.S. Northwell’s first internal communication was sent to employees on January 22, when the first case hit Washington state. 

It was in those early days that Tom, his team, and internal partners created a four-phased messaging and communication strategy to align with the various phases they projected for the pandemic itself: 

  • Phase 1: Preparing and keeping team members informed on the steps Northwell was taking to get ready.
  • Phase 2: Being in the thick of it (i.e., keeping team members informed on new protocols that were changing daily, if not several times a day).
  • Phase 3: Keeping morale up through the dark days, particularly when the sheer volume and intensity of cases and mortality were highest. (This phase ultimately included close collaboration with the brand team, PR, and internal communications to introduce initiatives such as the “Information is healthy, fear is not” campaign as well as the Healthcare Heroes campaign.)
  • Phase 4: Eventual recovery. Once cases are lower, how do you define the new normal and turn back on services that were suspended, such as regular surgeries?

Although quite unique, COVID-19 is not the first crisis the health system endured; they have other experience under their belt that informed this approach, including Ebola, Superstorm Sandy, and SARS, to name a few.

He credits this early planning and communications strategy — even when the size and scale of the pandemic was still unknown back in January — to ultimately keeping various teams aligned, on track, and sharing the right information at the right time as the weeks unfolded. Internal communications is integrated with marketing and corporate communications and the brand team at Northwell, and this integration was useful in creating and sharing consistent messages internally and externally. 

2. Making information accessible is critical 

When it comes to reaching employees where they are — knowing healthcare workers are not usually at computers — Tom and his team addressed the accessibility and expediency issue early on. Northwell Health created a central destination — essentially a second intranet that sits outside a firewall — dedicated to COVID-19 for team members to easily and quickly retrieve the latest information without barriers. 

Their original and traditional intranet (that does sit behind a firewall) was reserved for storytelling and employee stories, while job-critical information was housed on this new, easy-to-access site. It’s received a ton of traction and proven to be a valuable source of truth for their people. Tom and his team also launched a text messaging service where team members could opt-in — and more than 30,000 did — to receive news alerts via text that drove to the web site. 

If you’re like me, you might be asking, “How are they sharing news and updates with 23 hospitals during a time like this?!” 

Relationships are the name of the game. Long before COVID-19, Tom and his team cultivated strong relationships with site communicators across the health system. When the pandemic hit, they leaned on these relationships — packaging up information and sharing via Microsoft Teams for site communicators to cascade.  

3. During times of crisis, companies decide if they are going to be a market leader 

In “normal” times, Michael Dowling, Northwell’s CEO, and his leadership team are visible and active across Northwell’s sites — Michael even participates in their new hire orientation every Monday. His visibility across the health system never waned during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Early on, the health system decided to take a leadership role, particularly given their physical proximity to the pandemic’s epicenter. The combination of being on-the-ground with his people, as well as his honesty and candor in media interviews, set an inspiring tone that’s been felt across the health system. “He’s an inspirational leader, who true to form, brought the entire organization with him,” explained Tom. 

4. Company culture informs how an organization responds, reacts, and recovers 

In a time of crisis, you’ll see exactly the type of company culture you’ve built. Tom and his team continue to look for the organic ways Northwell’s strong culture comes to life across the health system and celebrates these moments through storytelling. 

He shared how one of Northwell’s hospitals, Forest Hills, was located in a COVID-19 hotspot and saw a significant influx of cases. Northwell nurses at a nearby facility, Cohen Children’s Medical Center, went to Forest Hills after their shift and drew an amazing chalk mural outside on the sidewalk to show solidarity with the hospital. Their artwork was shared across Northwell’s internal channels so everyone — no matter their location — could appreciate and amplify the sense of camaraderie. 

Another example is the Healthcare Heroes campaign, which was designed as a system-wide initiative to capture the energy, enthusiasm, and mission-driven work that Northwell people are doing. 

In a similar vein, Tom and his team also work to amplify inspiring media coverage across the organization that recognizes the courage and dedication of Northwell’s people, such as when 60 Minutes ran a segment focused solely on the experiences of Northwell’s emergency and critical care physicians. 

“The way that the team galvanized, the outpouring of support was incredible. That’s not something you can make up, that’s part of the fabric of the organization,” Tom reflected. 

We couldn’t agree more. We’re grateful for folks like Tom and his team, who are doing everything in their power to support their people  — many of whom are putting their own health at risk to care for others and their communities. 


Becky Sennett

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