Grady marketing up in lean times

After recent staff cuts, hospital aims to spend $1.5 million to boost PR

While Grady officials say the marketing campaign is necessary to attract financial donations and paying patients, some health care advocates object to the financially fragile hospital spending the money on advertising instead of patient care.

The campaign has included hiring an outside public relations firm to market positive Grady stories to community newspapers (about $120,000 anticipated this year); advertising with cable TV, radio, newspapers and MARTA ($800,000); and producing glossy booklets for the hospital’s annual report and new stroke center ($40,000).

On Tuesday in a separate campaign, the Grady Health Foundation will roll out a new promotional ambulance — repainted in red and black, with video screens installed inside — which will take the message of the new and improved Grady to church events, community gatherings and Centennial Olympic Park events.

Matt Gove, Grady’s senior vice president of marketing, told the AJC that this year the hospital is bumping up the marketing budget from about $1 million to about $1.5 million. Grady has an overall budget of about $740 million.

Some health care advocates have criticized the spending.

“I would have preferred to use [the money] toward patient care,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), a leader of the watchdog group the Grady Coalition. “Two-and-a-half-million dollars over two years is completely indefensible.”

Fort noted that the hospital has cut staff and some services in its struggle to regain financial stability. This month, Grady officials announced that the hospital had attained its first surplus in about a decade. Fort said the hospital should have used the marketing money to keep open the outpatient dialysis unit that it closed last year.

In addition to attracting more donations and paying patients, Grady officials say a successful marketing campaign can enhance Grady’s ability to influence state lawmakers and boost collaboration with other hospitals. All those are needed to keep Grady stable down the line, Gove said.

Grady has a long way to go to turn around its portrayal of what Gove called “a hospital that served poor people” and primarily handled “gunshots and car crashes.”

Typical of Grady’s public relations in the past was a bumper sticker that highlighted the hospital’s trauma care. It said, “If I’m in a car crash, take me to Grady.”

The hospital also has struggled over the years with leadership problems, excessive debt and complaints about poor care and treatment of patients.

The new campaign highlights that Grady has major burn and poison centers, is a designated cancer center of excellence, and trains one in four doctors in Georgia.

An outside advertising firm, Grey, hired at an anticipated cost of $100,000 this year, helped craft a new slogan: “Atlanta can’t live without Grady.”

Patient care and satisfaction are up, officials said. Grady has fewer hospital-acquired infections. Waits for medicine at the pharmacy have been reduced, in some cases by hours. Waits for an MRI, which in the past could be six months for an outpatient, are now typically less than a week.

Grady’s spending on its marketing and public relations campaign is about double from prior years. The sticker price does not include the salaries of the hospital’s in-house marketing staff of seven people. Part of the cost will be offset by Georgia-Pacific, which gave Grady $200,000 worth of advertising space this year.

Grady’s aggressive effort to re-brand itself reflects a similarly intense effort to reinvent the century-old institution. That began when several business and community leaders banded together in 2007 to save Grady. Their involvement helped improve the image and prospects of the hospital.

The civic leaders helmed an effort that transferred control of the hospital to a new corporate board, replaced the hospital chief and secured more than $300 million in donations to replace and improve antiquated equipment. That $300 million is expected to be largely spent by 2012, and the marketing campaign aims to inform donors that their dollars made a difference — so they keep giving, Gove said.

Some public officials say the results of the campaign are already showing in the community’s increasing willingness to support Grady.

“I believe that it contributed to Grady being in the black,” said DeKalb County Commissioner Connie Stokes.

The perception of success, however, could have a downside for Grady. When the hospital recently announced it had attained its first surplus in years, some commissioners in Fulton and DeKalb counties started talking about reducing the counties’ allocations to the hospital.

Still, now might be the perfect time for the hospital to build on its recent successes, said Dan Beall, a partner at the Strategy House, a health care consultant firm in Roswell. Beall said Grady’s spending on marketing and public relations is largely in line with other major hospitals.

“It’s going to be a challenge for Grady,” Beall said. He noted that the Atlanta market is filled with hospitals competing for paying patients.

Grady officials say they are being realistic in their ambitions and don’t expect to attract many paying patients from suburbs like Alpharetta for everyday medical care.

But with Grady’s new $20 million stroke center, renovated burn center and doctors from Emory and Morehouse medical schools, Gove hopes Grady can sell the public on a simple idea: “If your life is in danger, Grady is a good place to go.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.