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HIStalk Interviews John Hallock, Director of Corporate Communications, athenahealth

July 1, 2011 Interviews 5 Comments

John Hallock is director of corporate communications at athenahealth of Watertown, MA.

7-1-2011 4-52-38 PM

Give me a brief description of what you do at athenahealth.

I’m director of corporate communications. I oversee all external communications to media, analysts, and any public outside of the company. 

I used to have a part in investor relations, but now we have a team that handles that in house given the vast amount of coverage we get on Wall Street. We’re up to about 25 sell-side analysts, which is an awful lot for a company our size. We’ve had to really branch that off in the last few years.

What are the good and the bad aspects of your job when you’re working with someone so eminently yet dangerously quotable and entertaining as Jonathan Bush, who is running a publicly traded company?

Todd Park was my boss initially when I started with athena as a really young, almost a kid in my mid-twenties coming out of the agency world. I had the opportunity to work with some decent-sized companies working at mid to large PR firms and their CEOs and doing thought leadership campaigns. There’s a lot of articulate CEOs and there’s a lot of visionaries.

I had never encountered anyone like Jonathan and like Todd, quite honestly. You can see that now in his role at HHS where he’s very much in the forefront there.

Jonathan is … it’s kind of the like movie Seabiscuit. It’s the faster horse in the race, but you don’t always know what it takes to get the horse in the gate. He’s very candid. He absolutely has had a vision for this company and for the industry and that sometimes flies in the face of what many – whether it’s in the policy world or in the vendor community – want to see happen. He has a very unique talent of taking mundane or even boring topics and making them relevant to a broad audience, whether it’s a CNBC or CNN kind of audience or in a mainstream newspaper. That’s a plus as a PR person.

The other side of it, he is not an executive where I write talking points or a script and he just regurgitates them, as you know. There’s always this give and take, where he’s not someone that’s going to be “handled,” but rather it’s a relationship we’ve built over many years, where he’s got a really savvy PR mind himself and understands why he might want to talk to someone or do something.

There’s always a level of integrity there. It’s never done – as you know in the things we’ve done with HIStalk – it’s never done simply for publicity’s sake. When we went to HIStalk back in ’06, it was because we felt that the blog at the time was speaking to an audience that we were having a very difficult time reaching, quite frankly. No one knew about us. We still have a problem with that in terms of reaching a key audience in physicians and providers and in large groups, and having them understand our technology.

That is where he is very unique in terms of executives. You don’t often see an executive like him, given his role in this industry, have that much of a hands-on approach to communications. That emanates throughout the entire company in terms of how we talk to our employees, how we talk to media, and how we talk to analysts on Wall Street.

Some like that and some don’t. We are very candid with our employees. Every employee is an athenahealth insider. That has been accurate ever since we went public. Every single employee, and now thousands of them, have information that other people outside the company do not have. That presents risks, but it’s inherent to how the company operates. That really trickled down from him and Todd and the other leaders way back when they founded the company.

He has maybe the strongest gift I’ve ever seen in making whoever he’s talking to at the moment feel like his best friend, his smartest acquaintance, and the most entertaining person in the world. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a reporter or a stock analyst. I assume that comes natural, but behind the scenes there must be work to get him prepped and make sure what he says is covered the way he intended.

I think it’s twofold. You’re right. Like I said earlier, he and I have created a relationship over a period of time now, but he’s a genuine person. He’s sincerely excited about healthcare technology and I’ve never seen a person get as excited about medical billing as he does. From an executive standpoint, he’s probably forgotten about medical billing than most people in the revenue cycle management space understand or have ever known.

He’s a person that enjoys speaking with people that have an interest in the same things he does. That comes across whether it was him or anyone else. That’s a genuine conversation.

That being said, he’s also somebody that — based on his upbringing, I’m sure, and his experiences probably before athena went public and having to raise money and the venture capital and all the things you have to do as entrepreneur — he’s built that ability to make connections with people right from the get-go.

That said, as the company grew and we went public, especially after 2009 with the stimulus, we were just bombarded with not just outbound media relations, but inbound. We worked so hard over so many years to build this rapport with reporters and producers, so that if and when there came a time in the industry that something like that occurred, athenahealth and Jonathan would be the de facto resource they go to for clarification. That is what happened, which is great. It’s a PR success.

Yes, there’s an awful lot of work that goes into it, too. He’s a busy guy. You want to get the most out of any meeting. That’s pretty standard in PR, but at the same time you don’t want to… there’s never a time where he’s so over-prepped. You’ve covered a lot of this. There’s a lot of executives that, if you look at their interviews, you can literally read verbatim the same message. You don’t necessarily find that with him.

What you’ll find is that we’ll try to create two or three core messages on whatever it is we’re talking about. That’s something we will consistently hit home. The rest of it is really where we can ad lib and he can have a conversation. He keeps that ability to be genuine to himself and to the person he’s talking with.

Other executives in most practices in PR and communication it’s, “Here’s our messaging platform and you do not deviate from that.” You’ve probably interviewed lots of people that do that, and it suddenly sounds kind of like the teacher on Snoopy or Charlie Brown … waa waa waa. It loses its affect. That only works so long. 

It’s the same if you’re a reporter or if you’re a producer. They do not want an executive on who isn’t going to be able to roll with the punches and have a banter and a back-and-forth, whether it be with the talent on television or a reporter face to face, especially at a very high level. If you’re talking to a New York Times reporter or a Wall Street Journal reporter, they’re well researched. They’re intelligent people in their own right, or somebody like yourself, and their BS meter is extremely high.

The best PR people I’ve encountered are folks that you weigh the risks and you say, “OK, what do we get out of doing this versus not doing it? And what are the variables I can control and what are the variables I can’t control?” Then you play that. You let that equation play out.

Maybe you’ll agree with this. Athena is an incredibly aggressive PR company. It always has been. Whether it’s the campaigns we’ve launched, like PayerView and the Physician Sentiment Index, a lot of it is transparency. A lot of it is focused on releasing data and driving advocacy programs and pushing the envelope there. Again, that comes a lot from him and wanting to elevate the dialog. We know that’s something that allows us to play up our differentiators against competition and in the industry.

You mentioned the early days of HITECH.  When that came to life, did companies launch an all-out PR war to try to get attention?

Absolutely they did. I’m proud of the fact that if you look at the coverage, we and Jonathan and the company were right there getting our fair share, if not the majority of it.

A lot of that is hard work. Right up to two years before the IPO, building those relations with reporters that, by the way, weren’t even covering healthcare technology. There might be a technology unit. Take a Steve Lohr at The New York Times, for instance. He’s an individual that covers technology companies, but was suddenly thrust into covering healthcare technology when 20, 30 billion dollars was just tossed into a relatively tiny industry. Some of the companies he covered as a beat — Microsoft, IBM, etc. — were kind of fluttering around that industry.

If you’ve already built that relationship with him that he can go to Athena and he wrote about us a few times prior to HITECH, now he understands that, all right, this is an executive, this a PR person, this is a company that I can go to if I’ve got to work on a story. They’re going to give me something that is useful and it’s not going to be fluff. It’s not going to be toeing the company line to the point where he really can’t use it for his story. It takes years to build those relationships.

In February of ’09, literally, my phone was not stopping. I couldn’t even tell you how many interviews Jonathan did on TV. Dozens and dozens, not including media interviews. That was fantastic for us, but we got huge training for that around the IPO. We had the #1 debut IPO of 2007 in the country. That was, as you know, a whirlwind of media. 

At the same time, if you look back on that period, we went public in September 2007. We had obviously a great debut and we had very large investment banks backing us, so there was a lot of buildup to that. That said, that October of 2007, with MGMA, and nobody on Wall Street knew how to define what we were. You remember — no one knew what’s the model of this Web-based, Internet-based thing and the recurring revenue and percentage of payment.

What they called us was Software as a Service. Then every vendor, six or seven of the top ambulatory vendors at MGMA that year, released “SaaS solutions.” All the PR we had done to try to differentiate ourselves, we now had a new challenge of saying, “No, no, no, SaaS is not a monthly payment model. I’s not an ASP. It’s not something that’s remotely hosted — there has to be a service delivered. It has to be a service delivered over the Internet and the vendor has to have a stake in it. That’s the Athena model.”

We have not stopped to this day pushing that. Now, it’s because at Microsoft and IBM and others, the cloud as emerged. That has actually been great for us because that is essentially what athena is—a cloud-based service. It’s a lot easier for us to come in behind the Microsofts and IBMs and much larger brands that are pushing that and more a pure play and they may not be. They may have elements of a cloud play and raise their hand and talk to media and talk to other folks.

Honestly, it helps with prospects, because when you’re dealing with larger enterprises that obviously know who Microsoft, IBM, or Dell is and may not be as familiar with an athenahealth versus traditional IT guys in healthcare like Epic or Allscripts. Now we can have a much broader conversation. That’s where PR plays that strategic role for us.

I’m often critical of press releases that are badly written and don’t have any news value. Why do companies let that happen?

If it’s a little company, if it’s a private company, they’re trying to create news so they can create news. We did that a long time ago when we didn’t have a lot to say. I think as a company matures, you have to build — and we have built — mechanisms and protocols where we say when t is and is not worth  putting a formal press release out.

Press releases are the most significant form of communication a company, especially a public one, can do. It’s a formal communication and it’s regulated. You want to be careful when firing out a piece of “news” that it’s got news in it. It’s not just, “Hey, we agree, with this passing of a policy.”

One of the reasons that companies like to put out press releases more often is search engine optimization and the ability to link in press releases. That drives inbound leads to Web sites, so there’s a whole integrated approach there. The purity of the news has got to be at the forefront and we try to keep it there.

How do blogs and social media fit into the company’s strategy and how have they changed jobs like yours?

Night and day. I was talking with a former colleague from my days at Weber Shandwick, which was the largest PR firm in the world when I was there. There was no such thing as blogs or Twitter, Facebook, or any of that good stuff. That’s what we do now … that’s pretty much what we do. You put out a press release, that thing fires, and we’ve got the Twitter going and we’ve got the blog going. We have a content team now.

I look at where we were years ago in terms of just headcount and where we are now, and how large our marketing communication and content team and investor relations team is. Our ability to communicate via social media has grown exponentially, and it has to. The days of just putting out a press release are over. If you’re not in a position to take advantage of social media and new media, then you really can’t say you’re being a fully functional PR or communication department of a company.

In the old days, the only thing bad that could happen was that you didn’t get any coverage. Now there are folks outside the traditionally advertiser-friendly publications who might actually say something negative.

Oh. yeah. Just look at your blog. If you want to talk risk and reward, you know every time Jonathan does a Q&A with you, there’s good and bad there. He’s a lightning rod, so I know there’s going to be 20, 30 comments, because everything he says flies mostly in the face of the established vendors and the consultants and the folks reading your blog, which is who we want to change and how they think. But you know there’s going to be very negative comments. Or, the fact an executive – in our case, Jonathan – may say something about regional extension centers and that gets picked up by a competitor’s blog. 

All these things happen. From a PR person’s standpoint, your job. It’s not just picking up the paper every morning now and saying, “OK, my local reporter who covers healthcare — what did he write today?” It has nothing to do with that, for the most part, and has everything to do with keeping track of the blogosphere and who’s tweeting what and what other competitors are blogging about and understanding that one comment can have a massive ripple effect good and bad.

We honestly learned quite a bit through HIStalk. I’m not just saying that because I’m giving an interview here. We had some successes on the blog and interviewing, and we had some times where I would do things differently. Prime example – Jonathan’s last interview. Maybe doing something live or a podcast where you can hear the inflection of its voice or the fact that he’s making a joke or something like that — it gets lost in normal transcription. Usually you learn these things, but you understand that once that’s out there, people say, “Boy, that executive doesn’t even make sense,” when in fact he does, and if you were listening to the conversation, he sounds funny and articulate. But once it’s out there, it’s out there.

You got connected early with this tiny little quirky athenahealth with an ultra charismatic CEO that now has grown up and gone public. Where do you take it from here and where personally go next?

If you had asked me that a year ago, I’d say, boy, biding my time and Athena’s winding down. I’ve got to go be there, maybe start a firm or look for the next kind of Athena. But I think given all that’s going on in the industry … it was funny, I think now I’ve gotten a second wind. I’d really like to see this through. 

I think Athena’s really on the precipice of making some … we really hit the ball out of the park on the revenue cycle management side. It took us a number of years to do that. I don’t think there’s many people that would argue that Athena’s not a leader in that regard. I think on the clinical side, we’re starting to see some traction.That’s exciting and we have a long way to go, but I’d like to see where that ends up and my role in that.

Looking back as a young 24, 25-year-old kid at dinner in New York City with Jonathan and Todd … they essentially fired me the night they hired me. I was working at a PR firm that they weren’t happy with. I inherited the account to manage it and I was down there on a media tour. We had this great media tour with the two of them, and we went out to dinner. Again, I was just a young guy, nervous, and Jonathan says, “Hey, listen. We really like you, but you’re fired.” Immediately I started thinking, “How am I going tell my boss?“
I had to wait a little bit of time for a non-compete. 

I was very fortunate in that regard, but I don’t think my time at Athena is done. There’s a lot of great companies coming up, though. Nancy Brown went to one, MedVentive, which is doing some exciting stuff. I think anything that’s Web-based, that’s on the cloud, depending where the ACO debate plays out. But Athena, you know, it’s rocking and rolling. It’s big now. That gives us some muscles and we can do some more things and it’s exciting.

Honestly, as a PR person, if you spend six years or so building a brand or helping to build a brand, to me, it doesn’t make sense that when it’s starting to really hit an inflection point, you jet. I think that’s the time when you start to enjoy it and say, “OK, we’ve got the ability now to do some things that maybe we couldn’t do three, four years ago and talk to some people and influence some things.” If you’re a real, true, PR practitioner, that’s what you look for.

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Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. Fascinating read… thanks for the insight. Watching Jonathon over the years has been a thrill and John’s been fortunate to be doing PR for an exec who rises above the rest. It’s great to see John’s grounded view of his role and the strategic value of PR to athena.

  2. John, you’re as straight-shooting as Jonathan, though perhaps with a bit more linear thought! I always enjoy chatting with you, but now I see you also make a good read. You give PR peeps a good name.

  3. Very interesting read – I was always curious who handled athena/Jonathan’s PR – they seem lucky to have him

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