"The media and public opinion are great accelerators of change!"
Guillaume Papin, Director of communications and public affairs of the Hospital Federation of France (FHF)
41, is the director of communication and public affairs and a member of the executive committee of the Fédération Hospitalière de France (FHF), a lobby of general interest that represents nearly 5,000 public establishments and one million healthcare professionals. At the head of a team of 5 people, this expert in public and para-public communication - supported by a large communication agency - promotes public hospital and medico-social service at national, at a European and international level. Institutional communication, press relations, lobbying, strategic advice for the regions, and President… Guillaume used all the tools, hot and cold, during the COVID crisis. And the crisis, he knows. He started in 2002 at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health as responsible for government campaigns before being appointed responsible for institutional communication and partnerships of the League against Cancer in 2008. His commitment to public institutions continues when he became director of communication and public affairs at the Paris Bar in 2016 and led major projects in public affairs (presidential, JO Paris 2024 partnership, etc.).
1 / Several unions and hospital collectives call for another day of strike and action on June 16 everywhere in France. One crisis drives out the other…. Is the hard part really over for you?
We are coming out of the acute phase of the health crisis and it was time because all the hospital professionals are completely exhausted. However, let us remain cautious because this crisis has that particular and complex that it has plunged us all into total uncertainty! Scientific and health uncertainties, social and societal uncertainties, and finally economic uncertainties which are just beginning ... so that I cannot tell you today if the hardest part is behind us, because we will inevitably face new crises. The only thing I know is that the public hospital will play a role in economic recovery. Indeed, numerous studies show that one euro of hospital spending brings, on average, two euros to the local economy through jobs and purchases. Such a multiplier effect, many economists would dream of it in other fields! I believe a lot in the economics of Health Care. For me, health is not a cost, it is an investment.
2 / France seems to be struggling to reform and communication is difficult between hospital staff and successive governments. Do you participate in the Ségur de la santé? Do you believe it?
We are of course involved as a major player in the healthcare system. Our experts have joined in working groups on issues of HR, simplification, finance, etc. to make proposals to the government. The most important of them relate to the attractiveness of the businesses and their upgrading. And in the context of a real hospital bashing that has been endured for years, it is the role of communication to show that the public hospital is a beautiful institution of which we are proud to work. I would say on a deliberately provocative basis, that the crisis was - unfortunately - the best of employer branding campaigns for our businesses and that it will spark vocations. Then there is the need to relaunch investment after 15 years of development and the urgent need for administrative simplification. From this point of view, communication also has a great role to play here. For our proposals to be heard and to have political influence, they must be supported by the media and public opinion, which are great accelerators of change! Now the challenges remain great because it is the entire health system that needs to be treated, rethought, and transformed with global solutions. We cannot wait any longer, the hospitals are exhausted and it is time to act. This is what we ask the government, we fight for it and we believe in it.
3 / What was your role during the Covid-19 crisis?
The FHF defends the interests and values of the actions of the hospital and public ephads, which are complex "companies" that operate in a very sensitive context. They coordinate up to 200 jobs, host the public 24 hours a day and it is not uncommon for them to face heatwaves, attacks, or strikes. Suffice to say that communication in this sector is inherently cryogenic. For the COVID crisis, we started by reassuring and explaining that the public hospital was prepared, it was the white plan. Then when the crisis came, we went to an alert and citizen communication phase. We called for a sacred union around strict respect for confinement to allow hospitals to treat as many people as possible. Every morning, we held a crisis meeting with regional officials who told us about the problems on the ground, and a note was sent to the Ministry of Health with recommendations, always in the spirit of co-construction and proposals.
4 / Did it mobilize more means of communication and which ones?
We have above all developed human resources, at the headquarters in Paris and on the ground in regions where we were all mobilized. We have also focused on media relations to better influence public decisions. But the real innovation for the FHF was its ability to centralize the material and financial donations that poured in from companies. Because citizen mobilization led to the mobilization of companies who also wanted to support the health system. And where only 4 months ago, it was inconceivable for us, the federation, to accept money and contributions from private companies, we did not think very long about the solicitations. Generali made a donation of 3 million euros, Flying blue from Air France offered plane tickets to caregivers, the Boulanger Foundation gave 30,000 tablets to residents of Ephads so that they could stay in touch with their family… They had the means, we knew the needs and the terrain. Armed with this experience, we will probably continue to solicit businesses tomorrow and develop this culture of partnership.
5 / Is a fundraising campaign to support public hospitals, new to France?
It is indeed new both for the French and for the FHF. To get there, we had to partner with a large foundation whose primary mission is to raise funds. We got closer to the Fondation des Hôpitaux de Paris - Hôpitaux de France chaired by Brigitte Macron, so we created a support fund and implemented joint actions such as the release of a clip with Marc Lavoine, Pascal Obispo and Florent Pagny “Pour les gens du Secours” whose copyrights will be fully transferred to it. To date, more than 30 ME has been donated to the establishments that needed it most. And I must admit that my experience at the League against Cancer has been very useful here.
6 / Alert without panicking, how bad is it?
It is the complexity of health communication to avoid doing too much or not doing enough, in a timing that is rarely mastered. We must strive to stay on a good ridge: avoid being too alarmist by saying that the hospital was completely overwhelmed at the risk of creating a huge movement of panic and take care not to be too reassuring either, may be out of step with the reality on the ground which was very hard. From this point of view, I find that the government has found the right tone. I believe a lot in this chosen transparency. Being transparent to be transparent can cause panic, but being transparent by choosing the right time and highlighting solutions is transparency that makes sense; a balancing act that we had to play with the media by moderating and calibrating the requests.
7 / Public and political tributes, applause at the windows, a film "Thank you to the caregivers" for the social networks and the graceful spaces of the TV channels, does this mean that pride moves the world forward… and constitutes an effective spring for communication?
I do not know if pride moves the world forward, but I am convinced that communication has served to strengthen the pride of French people towards the hospital and public ephad and all the professionals who work there. That's why the French went to the balcony every night to 20H and the media rallied. For our part, we have made a film where the caregivers thank the French, from images they filmed themselves on the spot; a tribute that seemed obvious and authentic to us.
8 / The social utility of companies, a new fashion for communication professionals, or structuring data for business communication tomorrow?
It always existed ... before we talked about CSR, today we talk about corporate social utility. In my opinion, it is the companies that do this with sincerity, that will come out on top. It is up to us to give meaning to the actions of companies wishing to act in favor of an efficient health system. As we know, a partnership only works with meaning, it is a give and take. If it's just to give money, it doesn't work. It has to match the purpose of the business. Just before the crisis, for example, we initiated the project to improve the conditions of reception of children in the hospital and in particular to provide accompanying beds to hospitals that could not afford it. The Professional Football League got closer to us, wanted to support us without having a precise idea. We talked to them about this issue and they were interested. This is how for each goal scored by Ligue 1 in the 2019/2020 season, 100 euros were donated and that we were able to collect almost 200,000 euros.
9 / Covid-19, your worst, and your best memory?
The worst of my memories is the anguish of the acute phase of April when we believed that the dam would fail, that we could not cope with the disease or cure the largest number. It was the most critical phase. Fortunately, there was the courage and imagination of the caregivers who overcame the fatigue and found solutions to overcome the lack of equipment. My best memory is when I received in the space of a day, all the images & testimonies taken by the medical staff for the needs of the film. What pride to work for this institution! It was breathtaking to see all this energy unfolding. It was a very moving moment for me…
10 / And telework with 3 young children… where is it on this scale?
The confinement forced us to mix professional and private life and it was completely new for me !! And I realized that it was sometimes more complicated to explain a math or grammar exercise than to set up a crisis comm strategy during COVID times (laughs). More seriously, we evangelized telework a lot and it was necessary at that time to maintain the economy. But personally, I don't think it should become the norm. I suffered a lot. We need to be in touch with others, to confront and feel, this is what each person needs, I believe, to be in real life. The video is good, but the visuals are better.
11 / What if it had to be done again?
As in all crises, many observers have been criticized. We were in action, we acted. So yes, we could all have done better during this crisis. It is all the meaning of the feedback and the fact-finding committees that are starting, to see what has sinned so that we can be better prepared and that is the main thing. There are only those who do nothing, who do not make mistakes.
12 / After short nights and longer weeks, how do you see the summer in the future?
I don't know what it will be made of. This virus appears to be seasonal, but not certain either. A second wave during the summer? a heatwave? I stay on deck ... like all communication directors who are regularly subjected to crises. But we're going to stay in France to support the local economy and tourism.
Created in 1924, the FHF represents all public health establishments (hospitals) and medico-social establishments (retirement homes, autonomous specialized reception centers, etc.), ie nearly 5,000 establishments, and their staff, 1 million professionals. The lobby of general interest, the Fédération hospitalière de France (FHF) fulfills a triple function of promotion, information, and representation. The FHF defends the values and interests of the public hospital service and promotes the quality of service through relations with the press and opinion and information leaders aimed at the general public (events, letters, newsletters, magazines, guides…). It is also a place where proposals are made to feed the legislative debate. The FHF is indeed a privileged interlocutor of the public authorities in the implementation of the ongoing reforms. It is positioning itself as a constructive but demanding partner in the defense of the public hospital and medico-social establishments.