Handling your PR crisis

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Elizabeth Newman, McKnight's Senior Editor
Elizabeth Newman, McKnight's Senior Editor
A few months ago, I called up a nursing facility that was embroiled in a legal snafu. This is, amazingly, a fairly common behavior of reporters and editors: We'll ask you for a comment about your latest crisis, especially if the federal government is suing you.

I managed to track down someone in marketing and explained to her what I was working on. She said, “I think you have the wrong person. I am the marketing person.”

I'm not sure I uttered an audible response, as I was busy hitting my palm against my forehead.

Having been on both sides of public relations crisis, I have sympathy for both the dogged reporter and the marketing spokesman spinning as fast as she can. It's worth noting that not all facilities or companies have the financial ability to have a full-time PR person. But it doesn't absolve your CEO or vice presidents from being prepared.

To begin with, if you can't avoid the lawsuit, the scandal, or the incident, have someone ready to answer questions. Even if your head executives want to stick with “no comment,” there's no harm in reminding people of your commitment to your residents/staff/community and/or staying out of jail. Don't overlook the importance of organization, such as having the person whose phone number is listed on the press released being available to answer phone calls, having your “on-call” person answer pages, or even the secretary answering the phone being able to provide basic background facts that will make your group look competent.

Don't just take my word for it. Shannon McIntyre, currently the communications manager at Intel-GE Care Innovations and formerly of Burson-Marsteller's healthcare department, points out that a crisis for a healthcare company can be even more devastating than other organizations. That shouldn't be a surprise to those within the long-term care industry, where the ill elderly are seen as a vulnerable population.

“Health-related crises – from breaches of personal health data, to adverse effects from a drug – are intensely personal and emotional for the affected people, and require a heightened level of responsibility, understanding, and action,” McIntyre says. While there are different opinions on whether a company should apologize when a crisis hits, she falls into the category of showing remorse. But it should be backed up by an action plan of what the company is going to do to fix the problem and put steps in place so that it doesn't happen again.

“Making excuses is a major no-no, as it evades responsibility,” she adds.

Kelly Mize, the public relations manager at Invacare, points out that reputations take “years to develop and minutes to damage, so it is important to respond quickly, carefully and honestly.”

“It is crucial to have a team dedicated to your crisis communications before the unexpected happens, so you have contact information and a group of people who understand the various parts of your business and can influence the communication so all your bases are covered,” she says.

On the provider side, Eric Anderson, director of communications at Asbury Communities Inc., which oversees senior living communities, says while it's important to be prepared, it's also important to be genuine.

“It's much better to be unpolished and deliver a genuinely caring message than to get the words right yet appear unsympathetic.  At the same time, always be truthful — anything less than honest, if discovered, destroys trust, credibility and reputation,” he says.

He also says that, “despite rumors to the contrary, the media is your friend.”

“Don't wait for a crisis to reach out to the media.  Build relationships.  Give them positive, newsworthy stories about your organization or initiatives that allow them to get to know you better,” he says.

This doesn't mean that those of us in the media will go easy on you when scandal erupts. But it will mean that you'll be able to get your side of the story out. Even when we're not your friend, we want to be fair. But that means you have to do your part in being prepared.

If you have other tips on handling a public crisis, please leave them in the comments below.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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