I was in a board meeting last week when members were asked to state the one part of their job that they love the most. Two of the board members, both seasoned marketing communications professionals, mentioned crisis communication. I immediately understood where they were coming from. Like them, I enjoy crisis communication. There’s nothing like a good crisis to get your blood stirring. And if you are an experienced crisis communications professional, it is a chance to shine – at a time when many others are completely out of sorts. It is hard to find another time when our skills and experience are more appreciated and valued.
Ebola has once again focused hospitals and medical centers on the importance of having a comprehensive Crisis Communication Plan. Yet, I am amazed at how many organizations still do not have one. Yes, almost all hospitals have crisis management plans and protocols – but not crisis communication plans. How do you plan to communicate with your various publics in the event of:
- Pandemic or Public Health Crisis – Ebola, SARS, Swine Flu, Avian Flu, etc.
- Natural Disaster that Strikes Your Region of the Country – Think Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina. This could include tornadoes, ice storms…
- Disaster at Your Facility – Explosion, Chemical or Nuclear Contamination, Fire, or Mass Casualty Event on your campus.
- Mass Casualty Event in Your Market – Bus accident, plane crash, shooting.
- Institutional Crisis, Medical Error, Patient Safety or Malfeasance – Many of these tend to be smoldering crises that arise over time and generally provides the company with some advance warning. In my experience, these tend to be the most common crisis that occur at hospitals – at least they happen with the most frequency.
I learned crisis communication planning and preparedness from three major events much earlier in my career.
- SARS 2003 – Back in 2003 I was doing marketing and public relations for UNC Health Care when a UNC-Chapel Hill employee came down with SARS after visiting a sick relative in a Toronto hospital. At the time, SARS was an emerging global epidemic, not unlike Ebola today. This was an amazing learning experience.
- Managed Care Negotiation Crisis – People panic when they learn that their healthcare provider will no longer accept their insurance. At this point in my career I’ve been involved in communication planning for nearly a dozen contentious managed care negotiations. We plan contingencies and communications strategies should the negotiations break down. And they often do. You need to have a plan for how you will communicate with patients, employers in the market, your employees, influentials and government leaders, etc. How will you respond when the health insurance company releases a statement that negotiations have broken down and you are at fault? And you are the reason people won’t have access to their beloved physicians.
- Institutional Crisis – Nearly 15 years ago my firm was brought in to manage communications around the launch of a children’s hospital that had gone horribly wrong. The hospital was months behind schedule, approximately $25 million over budget (perceived to be public funds), and a hospital employee was quoted in local media saying that she was “spending money like a drunken sailor” in the construction of this new children’s hospital. As you might imagine, bad press was abundant. It was my teams job to intervene and change the story and public discourse about this new children’s hospital. Fortunately, we were able to do that.
If your hospital doesn’t have a crisis communications plan, it is time to develop one. If you need help, bring in a seasoned crisis planning and communications professional to help put the plan together. If you don’t know the right person, I’d be glad to put my team on it! This is an investment in your hospital’s reputation. It is our job, as communicators, to protect the integrity and reputation of the organizations that employ us. Are you and your team prepared to do that? Do you have a plan? Remember, there will always be another Ebola. Think about SARS, Swine Flu, Avian Influenza….