How UMMS coached board to avoid queries

Mem­bers were given talk­ing points amid the con­tro­versy over lu­cra­tive busi­ness deals

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND - By Kevin Rec­tor krec­[email protected]­sun.com twit­ter.com/rec­tor­sun

Emails be­tween top ex­ec­u­tives and board mem­bers at the University of Mary­land Med­i­cal Sys­tem show a con­certed ef­fort in re­cent months to avoid shar­ing un­scripted in­for­ma­tion about the lu­cra­tive busi­ness deals the sys­tem had with some of those board mem­bers.

The emails, ob­tained by The Bal­ti­more Sun through a Mary­land Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest to state Sen. Nancy King, show that she and other board mem­bers were urged by ex­ec­u­tives to in­stead use “talk­ing points” pre­pared by the sys­tem’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions team and me­dia avoid­ance strate­gies from the Fall­ston Group — a cri­sis com­mu­ni­ca­tions team re­tained by the sys­tem.

UMMS has de­clined to an­swer questions for months about its con­tracts with board mem­bers, pend­ing an in­ter­nal re­view of them by the Cal­i­for­nia-based firm Ny­gren Con­sult­ing.

That re­view is due this month, of­fi­cials have said.

One of the talk­ing points, pro­vided to board mem­bers in April, states that the sys­tem’s con­tracts with its own board mem­bers — some val­ued in the mil­lions and some never com­pet­i­tively bid — had “no im­pact what­so­ever on the quality of care we’re able to pro­vide to our pa­tients on a day-to-day ba­sis.”

An April memo from the Fall­ston Group, which calls itself “The Rep­u­ta­tion Agency,” was ti­tled “Pre­par­ing for the Worst: Suc­cess­fully Nav­i­gat­ing a Me­dia Am­bush.”

The group pro­vided in­struc­tions for a va­ri­ety of sce­nar­ios — such as when con­tacted by a re­porter by phone or when “am­bushed on cam­era.”

The in­struc­tions ad­vised board mem­bers in­ter­ested in avoid­ing the lat­ter to “main­tain low to no vis­i­bil­ity” and change their daily pat­terns so as not to “be­come pre­dictable.”

The com­pany ad­vised board mem­bers who are ap­proached on cam­era to stop and “di­rectly ad­dress” the re­porter.

“DO NOT in­ter­view while walk­ing, get­ting into a car, el­e­va­tor, front door of your home, etc.,” it ad­vised.

The ad­vice was sent to board mem­bers by Act­ing UMMS CEO John Ashworth — who took over in March af­ter CEO Robert Chren­cik took a leave of ab­sence be­fore later re­sign­ing — fol­low­ing the in­ter­view of a for­mer board mem­ber out­side his home by a re­porter with WBFF.

Asked about the emails and the sys­tem’s re­la­tion­ship with the Fall­ston Group, Michael Schwartzbe­rg, a UMMS spokesman, said such ad­vice for board mem­bers is com­mon in the busi­ness world, and that UMMS had the Fall­ston Group on re­tainer prior to the The Sun’s re­port­ing on the board mem­bers’ con­tracts in March.

He de­clined to say how much UMMS pays the Fall­ston Group, call­ing its con­tract with the firm con­fi­den­tial.

In a state­ment, the Fall­ston Group’s CEO Rob Wein­hold said the firm’s client re­la­tion­ships are “both pro­pri­etary and con­fi­den­tial,” but that its gen­eral ap­proach is “to en­cour­age ac­cu­rate, forth­right trans­parency and de­ci­sion-mak­ing, within the proper con­text and time­frame.”

An­other email sent to board mem­bers in April ad­vised them to avoid questions from a Sun re­porter.

“Kevin Rec­tor, a Bal­ti­more Sun re­porter, is writ­ing a story and is call­ing many UMMS board mem­bers for com­ment,” wrote Jerry Woll­man, the sys­tem’s chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer.

“We re­quest that, if con­tacted and you speak to him, you simply state that you are not at lib­erty to com­ment and re­fer him to UMMS me­dia re­la­tions . ... If he leaves a mes­sage, we ad­vise not call­ing him back.”

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