How Special Events Can Build Your Reputation and Brand

September 1, 2014

by Ritch K. Eich, PhD

Ritch K. Eich, PhDSpecial events have been an integral part of health care organizations for centuries. For example, back when Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy religious order in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831, charity functions—sermons, bazaars, and other appeals—were an integral part of social life.

In his 1955 book about that period, Catherine McAuley: The First Sister of Mercy, Roland Savage reported that charity bazaars were “a striking feature in the social life of Dublin … and were an unfailing source of revenue for the city’s many charities.”

Today, special events continue in the health care industry, although two different points of view have evolved regarding their purpose.

The first point of view is that a special event is executed to meet a one-time goal, such as fundraising for a new service, building, or alliance.

The second point of view—one that I’ve always embraced—is that a special event has a much more expansive goal that includes underwriting key marketing and public relations initiatives, such as relationship building, reputation enhancement, and patient acquisition. This can lead to a delightful, fruitful experience for all who participate!

Special events, when properly conceived, managed, and leveraged, are a very important part of a health care organization’s overall reputation-building strategy. For example, they can:

  • Help enlist strategic allies and partnerships.
  • Create a forum for both new and established supporters.
  • Provide positive media coverage.
  • Build market share.

These objectives should all complement one another and lead to making the hospital, clinic, or insurance plan the preferred choice among patients and customers.

Special events must be an integral part of an organization’s overall brand strategy. Viewing them as such will help ensure consistency in both message and timing when combined with other marketing components such as social media, direct mail, advertising, media relations, publications, and online navigation, content, and design. One of the best ways to ensure all of these elements work in concert, and that their potential is maximized, is to ensure they are skillfully led.

Unfortunately, some health care executives have been largely indifferent to the impact special events can have on their organization’s bottom line. Special events are sometimes treated as a fringe activity or worse, and events coordinators are not seen as integral members of the team.

I’ve known industry leaders who have treated special events as if they were nonaligned, self-determining events with maverick volunteers. This is a huge mistake and undermines the many tangible and intangible benefits that special events can bring to an organization.

As rightful extensions of the health care entity’s brand, special events can help bring a community together, alter an institution’s image, or hone existing messages. They can provide invaluable media exposure, help grow business, build inpatient and outpatient census, stimulate philanthropy, and foster goodwill in the community. In other words, they can improve patient care, customer satisfaction, and the organization’s bottom line.

Well planned and orchestrated special events can also bolster employee pride, especially if employees are involved with volunteers in their planning and execution.

One of the notable special events I oversaw for several years was the “St. Joe’s Holiday Ball” for St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor (part of St. Joseph Mercy Health System). This signature bash, now in its 39th year, is recognized by many as the premier social event in the region and signals the beginning of the holiday season in southeastern Michigan.

This annual special event has allowed St. Joe’s Mercy Hospital to expand, grow, and better serve the community, as can see from the list of themes and beneficiaries over the years:

Year Event Beneficiary
1976 St. Joe’s Goes to the Movies Diagnostic Equipment – CT Scanner
1977 St. Joe’s Plays the Palace Medical and Surgical Equipment
1978 St. Joe’s Waltzes to Vienna Medical and Surgical Equipment
1979 St. Joe’s Rings in the Holidays Medical and Surgical Equipment
1980 St. Joe’s Encores Lester Lanin Nursing Code 90 Endowment
1981 St. Joe’s Heralds a White Christmas Nursing Code 90 Endowment
1982 St. Joe’s Celebrates a Holiday Fantasy Nursing Code 90 Endowment
1983 St. Joe’s Presents a Midwinter Night’s Dream Emergency Department
1984 St. Joe’s Lights Up Manhattan Emergency Department
1985 St. Joe’s Celebrates a Dazzling Decade Adolescent Behavioral Services
1986 St. Joe’s Diamond Anniversary Ball Adolescent Behavioral Services
1987 St. Joe’s Rings in a Merry Christmas Rehabilitation Program
1988 St. Joe’s Orchestrates a Musical Holiday Catheterization Laboratory
1989 St. Joe’s Wishes Upon a Star MRI Equipment Project
1990 A Shimmering Rhapsody McAuley Cancer Care Campaign
1991 Heaven and Nature Sing McAuley Cancer Care Campaign
1992 Waltz of Yuletide Flowers McAuley Campaign for Elderly Care
1993 La Fiesta del Sol McAuley Campaign for Elderly Care
1994 St. Joe’s Presents a Highland Holiday Fling McAuley Campaign for Elderly Care
1995 The Winter Palace at St. Joe’s Campaign for Cardiovascular Care
1996 St. Joe’s Holiday in Venice Breast Care Services
1997 Joie de Vivre” (Joy of Life) Campaign for Women’s Health
1998 Reflection of a Winter’s Night Campaign for Women’s Health
1999 An Evening on the Emerald Isle Campaign for Women’s Health
2000 The Grand Ball: Celebrating St. Joe’s Past, Present & Future Campaign for Women’s Health
2001 St. Joe’s 2001 Odyssey Ball Emergency Department Renovation and Expansion
2002 It’s a Wonderful Life Emergency Department Renovation and Expansion Pediatric Emergency/Urgent Care
2003 Under the Tuscan Moon Cath Lab/Radiology Renovation and Expansion
2004 An Evening at The Nutcracker Surgery Pavilion Project
2005 A Journey to the North Pole The Patient Towers, featuring the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
2006 Majestic Michigan The Patient Towers, featuring the Surgical Intensive Care Unit
2007 As Time Goes By The Patient Towers, featuring the Oncology Unit
2008 Winter Wonderland The Patient Towers, featuring the Cardiovascular Hospital
2009 Paris—City of Lights The Patient Towers, featuring the Mother/Baby Unit
2010 Rio The Patient Towers, featuring the Pediatrics Unit
2011 The Black & White Ball— The Party for St. Joe’s Century Outpatient Surgery Center
2012 Wonderland Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
2013 Let It Snow Neuro Rehab Program
2014 Rococo Clinical Simulation Center Program

For an organization’s key constituencies, special events can represent a turning point in their decision-making process.

A special event may establish the first personal contact someone has with the institution, and cement a long-term relationship. An event can be the catalyst for transforming a visitor’s abstract interest into tangible appreciation.

A well-planned and well-executed event can convert a fence sitter into an advocate or a passive board member into an active one. On the other hand, disorganized and poorly executed events can have the opposite effect, by discouraging interest and attracting the wrong media exposure.

Enlightened health care leaders realize that if a special event is to have an impact, it takes much more than a dream or wish. It takes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of volunteer hours of expertise and dedication.

Whether large or small in nature, if an event is to be successful, it must be guided by a skilled organizer who is a combination of marketer and business leader capable of ensuring that the event’s objectives—along with budget parameters—are in keeping with the institution’s mission and overarching business goals.

Ritch K. Eich, PhD, is President of Eich Associated, a management consulting firm, and the author of two leadership books: Real Leaders Don’t Boss (Career Press, 2012) and Leadership Requires Extra Innings (with Second City Publishing, 2013). He is the former chief of public affairs at Stanford University Medical Center and the past chair of the board of trustees of Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, CA. He previously served as vice president at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital and Catherine McAuley Health Center.