Many medical facilities and healthcare providers are ill-prepared to deal with a potential onslaught of media during or following a crisis, says Michelle Foster Earle, president of OmniSure Consulting Group.
Here are some examples of crises that consultants on OmniSure’s Helpline team have shared.
A surgery center discovers it has performed as many as 60 surgeries using contaminated sponges. A patient, dissatisfied with the outcome of a surgical procedure, posts derogatory statements on social media and online forums looking for others who are also unhappy with the same surgeon. One resident assaults and kills another resident in a senior living setting.
A physician who has been prescribing opioids irresponsibly learns of a patient’s overdose death from another patient who referred her friend to him. A hospital learns that one of its physicians contacted and made sexual advances to a patient after discharge from the hospital. Three nurses in a correctional setting are held hostage by inmates during a riot started as a result of allegations of inadequate care.
It happens. And it can happen to you. An emergency response and disaster preparedness plan that includes a well-thought-out public relations and media management component is the best way to minimize the damage.
Start with the Disaster
Preparedness and Emergency Response Plan
As with disaster planning, managing the media and community opinion is essential to the survival of the organization and its reputation. When compiling a disaster plan, incorporate public relations and media management (including social media) as part of the plan. Managed well, the media can become an asset instead of an adversary in a disaster.
The safety of patients is the primary concern for healthcare staff, and you likely have already designated a crisis team and outlined each member’s role as part of your preparedness plans. Train general staff members to refrain from speaking to the media. Instead, inform all of your staff members which of their crisis team members will take on the role of media correspondent. You may even want to supply these crisis team members with identification badges (kept as part of the disaster kit) with titles such as “Public Relations Officer” or “Media Consultant” so the media know they are dealing with the person in the organization who can provide them with news.
When you meet with your team to designate duties, plans, and the tools necessary for disaster and crisis planning, examine the following questions:
How are visitors to be managed during a crisis?
What can be done to manage the possibility that families will speak to the media, post information on Facebook, or start a conversation on Twitter?
Who is responsible for keeping the crisis management phone tree up to date? Would texting or using another means of mass communication be more efficient?
Who will be managing social media communication during the crisis and monitoring for “mentions” in various social media platforms?
What can your insurance broker’s clinical risk management team do to assist? If your insurance broker has not arranged for access to a confidential risk management helpline as part of your insurance package, ask your broker to do so.
During a crisis, three essential groups emerge who need people to speak on their behalf: staff members, patients and families, and the community. One, two, or even three different people may be needed to handle these groups. Start with a call to your confidential risk management helpline for assistance and direction.
Staff members: During a crisis, it is essential that staff members react appropriately, continue to provide the essential patient care in a calm and professional manner, work together as a team, and respond favorably to leadership. The staff spokesperson must be someone trusted by other staff members to be supportive, strong, and able to keep them focused. Staff members must feel they are well equipped to handle the inquiries of those they are caring for.
Patients and families: Patients and families will hear about crisis events. It is always best to inform families before Facebook and Twitter users or the traditional news media report the crisis. The person responsible for informing families needs to be someone who can remain calm, confident, and solutions-oriented in the face of impending crisis reactions and whom patients, families, and others respect.
Hearing about bad news from a trusted employee or leader of the organization is far better than hearing news from a stranger. If there’s no way to personally contact families before news gets out, use social media in your favor to make an announcement, and direct people to the best source for ongoing information.
Community: What is said to the media and on social media sites has an impact that is long-lasting and directly affects the reputation of the organization following the crisis. The media spokesperson must be articulate and able to handle emotions and rapid-fire questions. Being in front of the camera is a skill few people are comfortable with, but the spokesperson’s personality is sometimes as important as what the media report regarding the crisis event.
With the advent of the Internet, news stories can live on cyberspace for years. The media spokesperson may need to keep a file of composed statements that can be read to news media or released in print to avoid unplanned last-minute crisis responses.
If multiple spokespersons are designated, create a system whereby all communications are equal in content and message.
Dealing with media
When the media first hear about a crisis, they seldom know the “slant” they will place on the story until after the first interview. The first impression drives most media attention. The standard “no comment” may make matters worse and motivate the media to draw conclusions that do more harm than benefit.
Prepare ahead of time with information that can easily be distributed to media. Short, concise statements indicating the situation is under control and that the management is working to resolve relevant issues are adequate for providing information to the public. It is not always best to provide details regarding steps being taken or the outcome of governmental interventions.
Prepare a brief history of the organization; include historical facts, achievements, and notable awards. Note that the organization is always working on behalf of patients, families, and staff and will continue to do so during any crisis.
Give staff members a phrase to use if media should approach them for comments. Phrases such as, “Your questions can be answered by our media representative”, will be easy for staff members to remember and will protect them from a media barrage.
Tips for the media representative
Have a prepared statement when meeting with the media. A prepared statement will satisfy the reporters’ obligations and allow a prepared image to be provided. If you don’t have an answer to a direct question, state something such as, “We’re exploring that in our investigation and we have not reached a definitive conclusion”. Never offer speculation. Inform reporters you are able to discuss only known facts and cannot speculate.
The public will be interested in the crisis at the organization. Ensure that you maintain the public’s positive image of the organization. State how the organization has provided services to the community for years and will continue to do so during the crisis. Convey the message that everything is under control while being truthful and factual. Remember, your words may appear in print on the front page headlines.
Be cooperative. Present the position of the organization and give the impression to the media that you want the community to receive. Refer to experts who are active with the investigation. Community members want to know that experts have been called in; no-one expects one person to have all the answers. Don’t allow yourself to be provoked into an emotionally reactive response, and never speak “off the record”.
The person managing social media for the organization needs to be integrated into the crisis communication team and have access to all of the same information. It’s important to monitor what’s being said in social media to gain insights into what people are thinking and saying about your organization and the current situation.
Some general guidelines for using social media in a crisis situation to follow:
Use social media channels to acknowledge a crisis event as soon as possible and let people know what information is available.
Reassure people that the organization is stable (if that’s true).
Let the public know what they need to do (if anything) and direct them to sources of information as appropriate. For example, in some disasters, the Red Cross is a good resource. The Centers for Disease Control may be appropriate in other situations.
Take sensitive issues offline so that a potentially negative conversation is not happening online.
Get legal counsel on privacy laws. De-escalate situations by acknowledging a problem, and then, if appropriate, explain that it cannot be discussed for legal reasons.
Periodically keep audiences up to date on the status and explain what steps have been taken to improve the situation.
Gradually return to posting routine information. This will signal the public that things are back to normal.
Prospering after the crisis
If an organization’s reputation is damaged, restoration will not happen overnight. The public will respond most favorably if they feel the organization was truthful and forthcoming. If you have cooperated with governmental agencies and followed the advice of the experts, local officials may be eager to reestablish your good standing in the community.
Communities are often willing to assist local medical facilities to survive after a crisis, so when appropriate, use the media to announce information and related stories that will capture the admiration of the community.
About Michelle Foster Earle
Michelle Foster Earle is the president of OmniSure Consulting Group, a risk management firm contracted by some of the nation’s leading medical professional liability insurance companies to help medical practices, hospitals, healthcare facilities, and providers of healthcare and social services nationwide reduce risk, improve performance, and avoid lawsuits. She has earned designations in healthcare management and is a licensed general lines property and casualty agent in Texas and an Associate in Risk Management.
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