Shane Swisher

Unfortunate events can occur anywhere, at any time. How a company handles the situation is what determines whether it’s perceived as a success or failure.

When faced with a crisis, any healthcare organization — be it a hospital or continuing care retirement community or other — has a twofold opportunity: first, to “get out ahead” and divert any potential negative press by touting the company’s core values of quality, efficiency and dedication; and second, to be completely prepared to address the issue head-on internally with employees and externally with the media, the public and other key constituents.

There’s been a lot of comparison between Toyota handled its recall crisis in 2010 with the way Johnson & Johnson dealt with the Tylenol-tampering scare back in 1982.

When Toyota’s problems began, President and CEO Akio Toyoda was nowhere to be found and the company was silent for days. Toyota’s U.S. executives eventually responded via both traditional and social media. They appeared on TV and YouTube, ran full-page letters in major newspapers, and fielded consumer questions on Twitter. But, in a public apology before U.S. lawmakers, Toyoda admitted, “What we lacked was the customers’ perspective.”

By contrast, Johnson & Johnson took action immediately, yanking every bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol from store shelves and ceasing all advertising. Although it ended up eating around $100 million, J&J came through as a company that put customers ahead of profits, and most importantly, could be trusted.

Toyota’s major mistake came down to the slowness of the company’s initial response — a failing that in just a few weeks damaged a reputation for quality that took decades to build. Sticking your head in the sand never works.

All businesses, large or small, need a crisis communication plan. If organizations like Toyota and Johnson & Johnson are not immune, neither is yours. A few pointers:

1. Be proactive. If a crisis comes your way, get out in front of the problem and take responsibility immediately. Reaction time is critical during a crisis, and what a company does or does not do directly affects its reputation with business partners, clients, employees, the public and the media.

2. Identify a crisis communications team. This team should consist of management, public relations and backup support that can be ready to act in times of crisis. All relevant work and cell phone numbers should be made available for team members to use in case of an emergency. The best practice is to keep your C-suite executives “on call.” During a crisis, the public wants to hear from the top brass — not a spokesperson or a lower-ranking executive who could be unprepared for the gravity of the situation.

3. Once those spokespeople are designated, make sure they are properly trained in interacting with the media. This is a valuable exercise, and it doesn’t hurt to have them brush up on their skills each year.

4. Take full responsibility. Understand the severity of the situation, and do whatever it takes to keep the trust of your various publics.

5. Be honest and transparent. In the case of a healthcare industry crisis, it really is “a matter of life and death.”

6. Don’t get angry or annoyed, let an unfair question go unchallenged, or blame problems on “the media.” Keep your answers concise and calm. NEVER say “No comment.” That only works in Hollywood (and it’s losing its credibility there as well).

7. Make sure everyone — both inside and outside the organization — receives concise, consistent messaging.

8. Get on social media NOW. Today, response time is measured in minutes.

9. Pursue good media relations. I read this on a PR blog recently, and it’s great advice: Media relations should be treated as a year-round activity. You and/or your PR firm need to establish positive media relations with all the good you’re doing now. You probably won’t get any breaks during a crisis, but pre-existing media relationships will give you an opportunity to tell your side of the story.

10. Be prepared. Have a workable crisis strategy in place, as it will help management spring into action when a problem arises. Although you may never need to use the plan, if the unthinkable occurs, it will help to serve as a communications “insurance policy” that can restore your organization’s credibility and dramatically soften any financial or legal blows such as lawsuits or lost business due to negative press.

When a crisis hits, you can’t always control the situation, but you can fully control how you respond to it.

Shane Swisher is a senior public relations strategist for Varsity, a Harrisburg, PA-based communications agency that works with the mature market.