Why this hospital ‘defaced’ its own billboard

Who: The Ottawa Hospital, with Berners Bowie Lee for strategy, creative, and media; Circonflex for audio; Candy Digital and Clue for digital; Grassroots Advertising for wild postings.

What: “Opportunity Calls,” a new nursing recruitment campaign that intentionally undermines the “nurses are heroes” sentiment that has become so popular in recent years. It is Berners Bowie Lee’s first campaign for The Ottawa Hospital since winning the business last year.

When & Where: The campaign launched this week, built around a toll-free hotline that nurses can call for help and inspiration in developing a new career path. It’s being supported by wild postings in Toronto and Ottawa, as well as social posts.

Why: Nurses have long been hailed as “heroes,” but the lionization of the profession really took off during the pandemic, when exhausted nurses returning home from long shifts were greeted by people cheering and banging pots and pans.

But in speaking with nurses during the campaign’s research phase, Berners Bowie Lee found they actually don’t enjoy being called heroes or continually thanked for their service. “In fact, I’d go as far as saying they really disliked it,” said Berners Bowie Lee co-founder and chief creative officer Michael Murray.

The public’s perception of nurses stands in stark contrast to growing dissatisfaction within the profession, which in turn is compromising the country’s healthcare standards. According to recent data from the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, 69% of nurses are thinking of leaving their job within the next five years, with 42% contemplating retiring or leaving the profession entirely.

While the “Opportunity Calls” initiative is focused on the broader nursing community, it’s intended to cast The Ottawa Hospital in a leadership role when it comes to addressing the challenges of the profession. It acknowledges that while many nurses view what they do as a calling, they can also feel trapped in their current role.

“While nurses are burnt out and have had a really challenging couple of years… they do still really love what they do,” said Berners Bowie Lee’s other co-founder and CCO, Devon Williamson. “Many nurses aren’t looking to leave, but they kind of feel like maybe they don’t have a choice.”

How: The crux of the communications strategy is a toll-free hotline that nurses can call to find new options and be connected with an advisor.

“We all know that nurses are burnt out and there’s a crisis, but we wanted to do something that’s action-oriented rather than just another awareness campaign, so when they feel stuck in their career, they can actually do something about it,” said Murray. “We wanted to give them something tangible and say ‘Instead of just talking about it, we’re going to do something to try to fix it.'”

Three billboards were erected near hospitals in Ottawa and Toronto to drive awareness for the hotline. Originally bearing the message “Thank you nursing heroes!” the billboards stood for three days being being deliberately “defaced” with a red strikethrough and the hotline number spray-painted above the message.

Meanwhile, an open letter to nurses affixed to the board acknowledges that they dislike being called heroes, and that “token gestures of thanks” are not enough, and urges them to call the hotline. Social posts feature actual testimony from nurses, such as 19-year Ottawa Hospital employee Tanya Lachapelle, who reveals that she actually studied political science and criminology because she wanted to be a spy.

And we quote: “Outreach is integral to engaging and supporting our current nursing workforce, and that is why we’re going beyond traditional job postings and using strategic ways to reach people where they are. We want to help everyone who chose to go into nursing, whether they choose to work at TOH or elsewhere.” —Melanie Gruer, chief communications officer, The Ottawa Hospital

Chris Powell