A new public relations consultant has served St. John’s Health since Karen Connelly, chief communications officer, went on a July trip to Africa.
On temporary contract, Alexa Kinney worked to soften the blow of former hospital CEO Will Wagnon’s rapid departure.
Kinney works for her own public relations consulting firm, ASK and Associates, though neither she nor the company name are easy to find online. She told the News&Guide most of her employment comes through word of mouth. Her firm specializes in crisis communication, she said, adding crises can be fast-paced situations, not necessarily fallout or scandal.
In the case of Wagnon she helped organize press releases and became the main point of contact for media and public inquiries regarding the former CEO’s departure, which still hasn’t been fully explained.
At least one community member who reached out to the hospital’s board of trustees asking about the CEO had that request filtered through Kinney.
Her contract was set to expire Sept. 4, but she said it was extended until Oct. 15 to help the hospital manage additional Freedom of Information Act requests related to Wagnon, many of which were made by the News&Guide.
A separate public records request for her hiring contract revealed Kinney charged her client, listed as St. John’s Board of Trustees — Susan Critzer, a flat $9,500 fee for her services, which included “Crisis and public relations consulting for resignation of current CEO, public relations assistance, assistance with public relations plan and assistance with communications surrounding CEO resignation and appointment of new CEO.”
The contract also lists a confidentiality clause ensuring all communications between Critzer and ASK, including hiring papers, remained private. When Kinney was retained for an additional 45 days, Critzer signed a separate contract with the same scope of work for a flat $4,000 fee.
Critzer and Connelly both told the News&Guide that Kinney was paid by the hospital, not by Critzer directly.
The board chair also said Kinney was not brought on as damage control.
“If Karen had not been traveling internationally I don’t know that we would have needed to hire anyone,” Critzer said.
She said ASK and Associates came highly recommended from Gillette-based law firm Lubnau Law, whose attorneys St. John’s and other Wyoming hospitals regularly contract. Kinney has also worked for Campbell County Memorial Hospital and has familiarity with the state’s disclosure laws, Critzer said.
“I wasn’t damage control at all,” Kinney said. “I was just brought on to help because Karen was gone.”
In regards to the arrangement of her employment — hired by the board, and paid for by the hospital — Kinney said that’s just normal, everyday business.“I mean, the board is St. John’s,” she said.
St. John’s Health trustees are elected by Teton County voters to serve four-year terms. They decide budgetary matters and help select the hospital’s senior management.
Connelly said contractors like attorneys, strategic consultants and recruitment firms work “with” the board rather than directly for the board.
The communications officer also said St. John’s taps into public relations support for “specific projects” such as the specific purpose excise tax campaign for Sage Living.
Now that Kinney’s contract is up, all correspondence to the hospital and its board will once again be filtered through its Connelly.
“I’ll be honest with you, I do understand why you were guys were confused,” Kinney said, “because I think, you know, when all of the drama and the kind of everything started dissipating — I say drama, but you know what I mean — kind of like the excitement surrounding what was going on with Will and his resignation. When all of that kind of died down, you know, we never really had a conversation to kind of say, ‘OK, let’s push everything back to Karen.’ So that that was probably my fault.”