Ascension | Nick Ragone: One Mission, Millions of Lives
Today: how a $24B Catholic healthcare system unites.
I'm on with Nick Ragone, the EVP, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for Ascension. Nick pursued law to start his career, and found that marketing carries the same linear storytelling style. Today, Nick continues to tell the story he's spread for the last seven years at Ascension, which advocates for a compassionate and just society as it expands access to healthcare for those who need it most.
Today we talk about how Nick led the One Ascension unification process for its hospital network, and how that togetherness became immediately valuable when COVID struck just a few months later.
We also chat about the unfortunate rising tide the pandemic brought to float all healthcare boats, and how Nick responded. Finally we talk about some of Nick's favorites avenues Ascension has utilized to tell their authentic story all the while.
(Including a podcast. Did you know Ascension has a podcast? Check it out: https://ascension.org/news/podcasts.)
Enjoy! Full transcript below.
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Adam Conner: [00:00:00] Healthcare has been front and center over the last year. And today we talk about how one player worth 24 billion boils down to one ministry. So let me spread a few good words to you about it on this Authentic Avenue.
Ascension: a $24 billion Catholic healthcare system, driven by compassion and dedication to provide personalized care for all today, I'm on with their EVP, chief marketing and communications officer, Nick Ragone. Nick started off in law before finding his way into the marketing and comms world and describes the story as similar, when it comes to story telling we dive into what that means as well as how he led a reunification of the brand just prior to COVID and what the last year has meant for him and the team, given that healthcare broadly has experienced an unfortunate rising tide.
Towards the end. We also talk about his favorite avenues to authenticity, as well as his advice as to how to carve some out for yourself. But I particularly enjoyed this, not just personally, because I was born and raised Catholic and worked through their education system. But also just because, cause you can hear, especially by the end, his passion for helping others, expanding that access.
No matter what faith you practice. I think this is a message that we can all get behind. So enjoy this one. I think it's a heart warmer. So sit back, relax and enjoy. As I get real with Ascension and Nick Ragone. Nick, how are you doing wonderful to talk to you.
Nick Ragone: [00:01:37] Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Adam Conner: [00:01:39] I am especially privileged to be speaking with you for a few reasons.
One I have not very recently, although I've done it a number of times, uh, spoken to folks in the not-for-profit space. I love hearing about the purpose over the profit, but especially right now being in healthcare. You know, has got to be quite the interesting story broadly speaking. And we'll talk about how that industry has changed over time and perhaps for you specifically as well.
That's where I want to start, because I don't think that you, you grew up and went to school and trained to become the EVP and COO of Ascension right now. In fact, as I understand it, the journey started with law and that I haven't heard that story very often the journey from law to, to. Type of thing that you're doing right now.
Could you help me, uh, by enlightening me on that journey?
Nick Ragone: [00:02:32] Sure. I get that question quite frequently, especially when I speak, uh, uh, to different marketing communication groups. Uh, people are variably go through my resume and see that I went to Georgetown law, which I did over 25 years ago. And I practiced as a lawyer for a little bit, but in my heart, I knew that I was a storyteller and I think being a lawyer and being a marketer aren't that much, there's not much difference, except that.
In the law. You're telling a story in the court of law to a jury in a marketing, you're telling a story to the public writ large, but it's still storytelling, whether you're a lawyer or marketer. And so, um, early on in my career, after practicing law for a few years, um, I made the switch to public relations and then eventually into marketing.
And I found in my marketing career, my communications career that having a legal background has served me well for two reasons. One is. Lawyers think in a very linear fashion when they storytell, they connect the dots. Um, they have, you know, great legal storytelling is, is like great storytelling. It has a beginning, a middle and an end and you make it very concise and you connect the dots, a lot of logic to it.
And I think great marketing is that way too. You know, you're, you're trying to tell us the shareable story by definition, a shareable story is, is one that somebody else can share. They remember it and they can storytell with somebody else. And there needs to be a beginning and a middle and an end to it.
And so I feel like, uh, it has served me well to be a lawyer by training and to be in marketing. And the other reason it helps is that I oversee marketing and communications, which includes internal communications and issues, crisis management, and so forth. And having a legal background has helped me navigate over the years, you know, kind of crisis management, reputation issues, thought leadership.
And so I tell anybody, if you, if you go to law school and you're a lawyer, yet you still want to be a storyteller or a marketer or a communicator or in public relations. Uh, there's no reason why you can't make the TriNet transition. It's worked out well for me.
Adam Conner: [00:04:33] Well, I understand that a little bit better now.
It's true. Some of the best marketing out there is simple to the point, and that's not to say simplified. It's just to say, it's easy to understand linear, as you mentioned. I think a lot of times people try to get a little fancy with the way that they marketed and can kind of confuse people and confuse the message.
And you can not confuse a message, especially in the industry that you are in. And that being healthcare, it is obvious to anybody who's been alive over the last year. That that has been an industry, which has been a particular spotlight. I cannot think of another time ever less and less. It happened, you know, with the Spanish flu in 1918, that pharmaceutical providers and companies have almost have like brand name credibility.
I've never heard that before now. Obviously healthcare isn't exactly the same as pharma it's in the same sphere, but it is making me wonder how you have been experiencing it. My assumption is that no matter who you are in the healthcare world, there's sort of an unfortunate rising tide that has lifted all boats this previous year.
And as I understand it, based on our conversation earlier, you had been redefining what the brand was just prior to this, which may have helped. I'd like to know more about that journey too, because it's almost like you were doing some groundwork and then COVID possibly changed everything or did it?
Nick Ragone: [00:06:01] Well, that's a long question.
Let me take it in two parts. One is, um, in my seven years as chief marketing communications officer at Ascension, one of the biggest initiatives I've been working on is rebranding our entire system, which, uh, frankly is the largest rebrand ever in the hospital space. I think, you know, we're a $24 billion company with 150 hospitals, 2,700 sites of care, more than the VA even.
And, uh, when I started, we were really, we, we operated under a lot of different. If you were in Tennessee, you saw St. Thomas. And if you were in Indiana, you saw St. Vincent and in Austin, you saw Seton and so forth. And it really within a market, you might've had, you know, Michigan, we had four or five different systems under system different names.
And so we started this journey, uh, at Ascension of really integrating our clinical and operations. And as part of that, I felt like it was the right time to also into also integrate our brand identity under the Ascension brand. And so now today, most of that work is done. And if you go to Tennessee to Nashville, you'll go to a sentence St.
Thomas, where if you go to Indy, you go to Ascension St. Vincent. We're in Austin, you go to Ascension Seton. And so all of our 2,700 sites of care now have that Ascension name and it's G it's done a few things for us. It allows us to have a kind of national voice and platform when it comes for advocating for issues that are important to us, like Medicaid expansion, so that all people have access to care or preserving the three 40 B program that reduces pharmaceutical prices.
Um, or the affordable care act, preserving that. So it's giving us a national voice as essential versus having a lot of local voices. And it's also made it much easier for our patients and consumers to connect the dots across our 2,700 sites of care. And knowing that, you know, my primary care doctor is part of this hospital system and that urgent care, and maybe that senior living, or if you're traveling to different markets, you might notice now that our, our, our, our care sites are connected.
And when you search for us online, it's easier to find us and connect us because again, we share a name and it's also made our associates feel like they're part of one, one ministry as we call it in Catholic health care by, by seeing their colleagues and other markets share the Ascension name and essential identity.
So it's been a real game changer for us to have a unified name, a unified brand, speak with one voice market with one voice, connect our associates with one voice and it's, um, we've called it our one Ascension journey and it's mostly complete. And to the second part of your question, really the COVID pandemic in some ways has accelerated that oneness.
Um, even though many of us are now working remotely and we're not physically together, there's been a spirit over the last year. We've had a national command center. That's really focused our COVID response. Um, we've seen amazing stories from our caregivers across the country. Again, they're seeing their colleagues at a different Ascension site of care, doing amazing things with patients.
And again, it, it fosters this togetherness and that we're in it together. We're sharing best practices. Uh, we've had Ascension nurses travel from Michigan to Texas and Texas to Florida when the surge has got really heavy. And, uh, so I feel like it's accelerated our, our one Ascension journey, our brand adoption, and what it's led to is we, um, every quarter we do a brand tracker survey.
We have a research group, a qualitative quantitative research group inside of Ascension, and we do consumers, consumer surveys, and every one of our markets, a large sample size thousands of surveys, just to get a sense of. Where the awareness of these central brand is, and the reputation of the essential brand.
And I can tell you over the last year, our awareness and reputation across all of our markets is up double digits. And it's not just because of rising tide lifts, all boats, I think in general, healthcare's up. But even when we break out the numbers and look at some other healthcare systems, our numbers were up dramatically.
Uh, more so. And we think it's because a, our amazing caregivers are doing an incredible, incredible job. And that story is getting out there and be over the last year. We've really focused all of our marketing and communications on two simple messages, gratitude for our caregivers and safety for our patients.
And we focus all of our channels, internal, external, traditional, digital, social, you name it. All of our communication vehicles. To deliver those two messages, which is we're taking care of our own associates, and this is how we're doing it. And we're taking care of our patients and those we serve. And that has really resonated.
I think, during COVID, um, the community that you serve really wants to hear from trusted voices like us. And they want to know that you're being transparent in your communications, that you're taking care of your associates and you're taking care of them. And we've been doing that. And I think all the brand work that we've done over the last seven years has led up to this moment.
And, uh, and I'm really proud of that.
Adam Conner: [00:10:42] It's great to hear about this coming together as one unit, this, the, the, the unity of the one ministry is I was born and raised Catholic. Okay. So I, I, I get, I get the, the, the message and the spirit and all that. Um, actually the majority of my education, uh, through secondary school was at, at a Loyola school.
So I'm in the Jesuit, just like you. Um, I'm, I'm curious how you then have used that. To build the authentic story in certain lanes. I have to give a quick applause to you here for Ascension's ability to create great podcast content. It's good that you're talking with me. I know that Ascension has their own.
It's a fantastic way to storytell as I know personally, and hopefully as this audience knows as well, assuming they're still tuned in. Um, I'm curious from you then is the heart of being authentic directly in line with that unity in one ministry? Is there more to it than that? Or is it those, those two, those two priorities you had just said about safety and so on, or is there more to the picture?
Do you have a certain story in mind which may illuminate that word for us? Or how do you look at it broadly?
Nick Ragone: [00:11:59] I, you know, I look at it. I'm very lucky. Um, I'm actually, I, I like to say I'm blessed in that I'm the chief storyteller for a Catholic ministry that has roots going back 2000 years, but more recently, 200 years in this country.
And we have a mission with a capital M meaning I don't have to wake up every morning or every year or five years and figure out what's our mission this year. What's our mission statement. What do we do? What's our race on Detroit? What's our true north, right? We've had one for really 2000 years. Uh, going back to, to the healing ministry of Jesus, but more recently, the last 200 years in this country.
And that mission is simple. It calls us to, uh, provide personalized, compassionate care, to all with special attention to those most in need underserved populations. And it also calls us to be advocates for a compassionate and just society. And so I, I wake up every morning with the privilege of knowing.
What my mission is capital M and how we deliver on it. And my job is made much more simple because of knowing that. And so I simply have to figure out ways to tell that story and bring it to life. And over the last year, we brought it to life two ways, as I've said, I'm showing gratitude to our caregivers, you know, putting lawn signs outside of our hospital.
Let's say heroes work here. We were the first to do that. Um, creating a magazine called good day century magazine and sharing their story, creating a podcast, creating a newscast, creating other channels to celebrate our caregivers. And then also taking care of our patients, making them safe, telling them don't delay into for your care.
We're going to keep you safe if you come to our site of care. And so all of our marketing communications, as I mentioned, is oriented around that and that flows directly from our mission capital and which is we are here to serve underserved communities. And we are here to advocate for a compassionate just society.
And that means equitable access to healthcare and equitable outcomes to healthcare. And we've seen over the last year, one of the, one of the many things that COVID has revealed is the schism in and the access and quality to care. And that there's a real gap in this country. And it's caused by lots of things.
A lot of social determinants go into that. But as one of the largest healthcare providers, we have to take an honest look and say, what can we do? Uh, to close that healthcare gap because it exists and COVID has pointed it out and it's, uh, you can't ignore it. You can't avoid it. And so that's where advocating for greater access to care for Medicaid expansion, for affordable drug pricing, and other things is part of our mission statement advocating for a compassionate justice society.
So I feel like I'm really blessed and privileged to be the chief storyteller for a Catholic ministry that dates back 2000 years.
Adam Conner: [00:14:40] I think it's a wonderful journey as well, that you're able to take, you've utilized all of these different vehicles. And, uh, you know, I mentioned one of the podcasts, but as you've just said, there are many, many more to effectively tell these stories and you take stances as well, expanding access to healthcare, that sort of thing.
It tailors really well into what I like to ask about what leaders specific avenues to authenticity are per the namesake of this show. You've already talked about a bunch. And I feel like if I asked that specific question, I might get the same response in response, but perhaps then I'll say of these wonderful things that you've mentioned that you've built, whether it be from the rebrand that you recently did or the coming together, I'll say that you recently did or over your tenure overall, what are a couple of your favorites, maybe ways in which you think that you all particularly hit it out of the park with regard to pushing that capital M forward.
Nick Ragone: [00:15:37] Well, that's a great question. I'll I'll give you a couple answers. One. Is it everything flows from our caregivers? Um, us in healthcare have always known that caregivers. They're not, they might not wear capes, but they're truly heroic. I've always known that anybody that's worked in a hospital setting knows that I think the rest of the country in the world has come to see that, uh, caregivers might not have capes, but they're real heroes.
Just the, I can't begin to recite and tell the number of stories of caregivers, selflessness, and heroism that I've seen up close and that we've all seen. And, and part of the reason why we created good day Ascension the newscast, which has been a huge hit in the podcast and the magazine and other things is to, to find new ways to tell that story, to bring it life to life in a visual way, with our newscast and in a audio way with our podcast.
And then with pictures through our magazine, that gets mailed to all of our associates. So. Part of it is that when, when you're surrounded by, you know, in our case, uh, we have 160,000 associates. Many of them, caregivers, physicians, nurses, others. When you see stories, the ones that we've seen, and we're not the only health system, all health systems have had stories of selflessness and heroism.
But as a storyteller, when you see those. You know, what you have to do, which is share those stories internally and externally. And so we created, you know, the, the, the pandemic has forced me as a marketer and communicator to create new channels of communication, frankly, uh, we might not have created a podcast or a newscast.
Uh, weren't not for the pandemic because we felt so compelled every day, hearing these stories and then saying to ourselves, you know, how do we share them? And I will tell you a true story, which is when the pandemic started. Um, I woke up in the morning every day and started working on my laptop from home at 6:00 AM thinking, you know, what can I do today to show gratitude to our caregivers and get their story out there.
And then when I went to bed at night, I said to myself, did I do enough today? Uh, to get our caregiver story out there. And that's kind of been my personal true north every day as a marketer and communicator and my team for the last year. And so we've, uh, it's tested us. It's forced us to bring out the best in our game, uh, to push us, to create these new vehicles.
Uh, to curate these stories and share them with each other and with the country. And, uh, I, you know, I'm just a small player in a much larger symphony of telling this story. And it's really about keeping the focus on our caregivers and those that we're, uh, we're privileged to serve.
Adam Conner: [00:18:05] That privilege that, that you play.
In the symphony has made for a wonderful past seven years. And as I close, I'd like to know what advice you might give to our listeners about how they might carve their next seven years in. They might not be the COO and chief comms officer of a large healthcare system. But the folks who are listening to this show include marketing leaders like yourself, but also others who are simply trying to move and shake in the either for-profit or not-for-profit world.
And even as people. Are looking to, again, carve their own avenues to authenticity. You have a wonderful story for how you're doing it. Currently, you have a great journey to this point. And so I'd be curious to know how you might advise others who are seeking to emulate your path.
Nick Ragone: [00:18:53] Good question as well. I think the, the, I get that question a lot and the only counsel I have is follow your passion.
And that's part of the reason why I went from being a lawyer to a marketer as well. I liked being a lawyer. I love being a marketer and storytelling is storytelling. I'd rather tell a story, uh, in the court of public opinion versus the court of law. And so I followed my passion, which is storytelling.
I've also, you know, my avocation is, is book writing. I've written four books on history. And so I love being a storyteller. And I think if you, if you, uh, if you mind that vein within you of, of your true passion, I think good things only come from that. And so being, like I said, the chief storyteller for a large, the largest Catholic healthcare system that dates back 2000 years, uh, is, is not a job.
I can tell you that it's a calling and, uh, a privilege and a responsibility. And that's the way I look at it. And, uh, I really love what I do every, every day. I wake up thinking, you know, I get to tell the story for 160,000 amazing people. And I hope I do it justice. And so that's what guides me every day.
I would, I would advise everybody just follow your passion.
Adam Conner: [00:19:59] Well, on behalf of those 160,000 in the millions around at least the U S if not the world who are, who are. Being benefited by any level of health care and those that bring it to them. Uh, thank you for following that journey. Thank you for continuing to pursue the capital M and selfishly.
Thank you for sharing a little bit of that story with me today. It's great to know what Ascension has done, not just over the last year, but over the past seven. And I hope you all keep continuing to tell the story, expanding that access and, uh, and following the Mo the one ministry way. So thanks so much for joining, and it's a pleasure to have you.
Nick Ragone: [00:20:31] Thank you for having me.
Adam Conner: [00:20:33] Especially as we begin to crest the wave a little bit of COVID, it's important to remember those healthcare heroes. And also not to forget, personally, I worry a little bit that folks will start to forget that though they don't wear capes. These folks working in healthcare truly are heroes, and we could not have gotten, literally could not have gotten through.
Without them. So on behalf of everybody, thank you to Ascension and thank you to Nick for coming on the show today. Of course, thanks to you. The listener for tuning in here's, where else you can find me LinkedIn, Adam Conner, Authentic Avenue, wherever podcasts are found. Of course, if you're subscribed and by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach out, let me know what you're thinking.
And also if I can help any way on your podcasting journey as an Authentic Avenue to your communications. Whether you like it or not. You're going to hear from me again real soon about another authentic path, how someone is carving it and advice as to how you can carve yours as well until that point.
I'm Adam Conner signing off saying until the next time I get real again with you. Thanks for taking a walk with me down Authentic Avenue.