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Pre-COVID-19, safety didn’t have to be explicitly communicated to prospective residents or prospective employees—it was a given, not a differentiator.

But the pandemic brought not only legitimate concerns for health, but a swirl of changing information—and misinformation in some cases—that left prospects and potential workers confused, overwhelmed, or even mistrustful.

Now, letting prospects know that safety is a core value and spelling out the specific action steps a community is taking is no longer optional. But the task of communicating that your community is a safe place to live and work is more difficult than offering a flexible schedule or an invitation to enjoy the chef’s latest creation. How do you get the message across effectively?

The most important way to communicate safety—as with everything involving values—is through culture.

“If it’s just to check the box to meet a compliance standard, it’s not a real safety culture,” says Raj Shah, CEO of CareSafely, which makes software for safety and quality management. “A safety culture starts at the top and is ingrained across the organization.”

The question that every executive should ask, is whether safety is the strategic priority that it needs to be in this new era.”

“Communicating the wider benefits of community living, of which health, safety, and security are hugely significant, was a hallmark of messaging long before the pandemic, and will be so long after it subsides,” writes Chris Egan, CEO of digital advertising company GlynnDevins, in an email interview.

“However, the pandemic has undoubtedly amplified this and brought it top of mind to a greater audience.”

Transparency and trust

CareSafely’s recent white paper, “Safety as a Competitive Advantage,” goes as far as to say that “COVID-19 has broken the trust that seniors and their families place with senior care organizations…”

What can bring it back? Bringing safety to the forefront, Shah says. “The more detailed information you can provide, the more comfort you give them.”

Elevate safety to the status of operational excellence or financial performance, starting with the leadership. For example, he recommends live video chats weekly.

Thoughout the pandemic, these words come up over and over, no matter who you talk to in senior living: Communication essentials are timeliness, transparency, honesty, and openness.

“This openness gives people optimism the community is taking appropriate measures and helps reassure them to make informed decisions,” Egan writes.

Getting specific

“Prior to the pandemic, Heritage Communities didn’t often advertise or market safety protocols as a stand-alone topic,” writes Lacy Jungman,vice president of sales and marketing at Heritage Communities.

The focus was on a social and engaging lifestyle, privacy, and help if you needed it; the provider wanted to be sure it was differentiated from skilled nursing care.

In 2019, Heritage launched its “Living Better” campaign. Every five weeks, the provider focused on a different value proposition—for example, Living Better with socialization, and Living Better for veterans. One of these was Living Better with safety.

“This worked prior to the pandemic to address safety concerns with prospects, without being over the top,” Jungman writes.

“Now that we’re living through a world-wide pandemic, safety is top of mind for prospects. Our marketing has shifted to highlight an often underemphasized department in our communities: housekeeping.”

Housekeeping staff is charged with cleaning and sanitizing, which is a critical piece of keeping residents healthy. But the staff’s importance can go unrecognized.

“We have started implementing videos and updated photos of our team members engaged in cleaning, washing hands, and wearing masks,” Jungman says. “A lot of safety protocols have changed over this past year, as we learned more about the virus.”

“One consistent piece we’ve all learned is that senior living operators can no longer solely sell a lifestyle of restaurant-style meals and socialization. We must now also include safety protocols into our regular marketing strategies moving forward.”

In their shoes

As with Heritage, Arrow Senior Living took an empathy-forward approach, putting itself in a prospect’s shoes and addressing what they want to know.

At the beginning of the pandemic, sales reached out to prospects offering help in using Zoom so they could join in on virtual activities at a community—and offering help with grocery delivery.

“We were encouraging prospects who were at home alone to engage with us virtually through our events,” says Cassie Tweten, Arrow vice president of sales. “Our number one focus was to try to help those prospects feel safe at home while they worked through the decision about making a move.”

Prospective residents and their families are facing life-changing decisions—sometimes with time restrictions—and pandemic safety concerns layered on top of this can ramp up the stress.

“We are really trying to meet people in the exact moment they’re in, and help. We’re going to try to cover what you’re stressed about, so that you can move forward with what was happening before the pandemic” in terms of decisions on move-ins, Tweten says.

Recruits get the message

When asked about the top personal challenge facing employees, 65 percent of industry professionals named “fear and safety concerns,” according to OnShift’s Workforce 360 report.

“Employee safety will always be a top concern for employers,” writes Jess Modic, vice president, customer success at OnShift. “We are now starting to see that COVID-19 safety is less of a concern than it was. One senior living organization shared that they are successfully recruiting employees from hospitality, which was not the case during the height of the pandemic. This is likely due to added awareness, prevention, and other COVID-19 safety controls.”

“For example, some employers have created infection prevention roles to promote safer work environments. Others are running educational campaigns to inform potential employees about their safety protocols.”

Modic recommends highlighting communities’ extra health and safety protocols in job postings, as well as in pictures and video on social media, so potential employees can actually see employees wearing protective gear and taking other safety measures.

Shah would like to see more practices borrowed from other industries. For instance, in manufacturing, he points out, if there’s an accident or a near-miss, the company will call a “stand-down meeting,” where employee teams huddle to examine what happened and brainstorm and share solutions. As well as indicating that safety is taken seriously enough to stop everything, it gives a chance for interactive generation of ideas from the people who know the environment best.

When, where, and how

What’s the optimum point in the customer journey—or in recruiting—to bring up safety? Every point is the right point, say those in the field.

GlynnDevins recommends using every channel of communication: “‘About sections on websites, email, paid media, social media, resident testimonials, signage in common areas and, perhaps most importantly, regular communication/updates from leadership that live on these owned channels,” Egan writes.

He also recommends touching on safety points in every step of the customer journey.

“But it’s vital during that initial engagement,” Egan says. “It’s quite possible if you wait to deliver this information, you may not have another opportunity.”

Later, he says, as prospects re-engage, they’ll seek more details and clarification of health and safety issues.

Arrow followed that course, as well—they established pen-pal relationships, used texting, email, websites, and especially their Facebook page, sharing information not only about the community but CDC information on protecting against the virus.

“Some communities got quiet during the pandemic,” Tweten says. “We got loud. One of our core values is ‘transparency builds trust,’ and we were really transparent. Prospects could follow that journey with us on our Facebook pages and on our websites.”

This also helped counter the discouraging images and stories. “We tried to say, not all communal living is like what you’re reading in the news. And here are the ways we’re trying to keep our residents and staff safe during this time.”

Shah of CareSafely compares it to the path taken by the automotive industry: “Think about all the safety improvements that have been made by the car makers, because consumers pushed back and kept demanding it. They were saying, ‘I don’t care about how many cup holders you have. If you don’t have an airbag, I’m not going to buy your car.’”

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