How UMMS coached board to avoid queries
Members were given talking points amid the controversy over lucrative business deals
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.”