Katie Adkisson

The nursing home industry has a target on its back right now. The industry as a whole is being harshly criticized in the media, leaving questions not only about its state of preparedness but the quality of care.

And while the criticisms are warranted in some cases, not everyone is in the same boat. Most have had the right processes and procedures in place and are not trying to be evasive or place blame. Yet there is a gap in what is being reported.

You serve our country’s most vulnerable population, and you have to be able reassure them, their families and your staff that you are doing everything within your power to protect them and provide quality care.

What makes the ever-evolving COVID-19 situation more difficult to navigate is its unpredictability and the many unknowns at this point.

Yet whether in a pandemic or any other situation that threatens your organization’s reputation, a few common themes are always predictable. Below are a few critical warnings to keep in mind.

Assumptions will be made. Detail everything you’re doing.

Many continue to say, and this is something we always preach to our clients when in crisis, but transparency is and always will be vital.

While you know the ins and outs of all you’re doing to protect your residents and employees, you have to communicate often to your key stakeholders what is being done. The rumor mill will be rampant in a crisis. A single off-hand remark from an employee or an assumption made by a family member can easily escalate into a negative social media post or a call from an investigative reporter.

Be clear about all that you have done and are doing. Is your staff wearing PPE at all times and following all protocols? Have you canceled community activities? Are you encouraging team members to social distance away from work? Have you moved residents and quarantined those who have tested positive?

If your message does not contain specifics, it leaves room for interpretation. In this situation, you should leave nothing to chance. In the void of information, assumptions will happen. Squash the rumor mill by ensuring all of your stakeholders know what you are doing to respond to COVID-19.

When fear is high, blame is easily placed and misplaced.

As many are keenly aware, crises can bring out the worst in people and fear for a loved one’s or one’s own health and safety can lead to the anger that many are experiencing right now.

In these times, there’s a need for grace and taking the high road. Be cautious not to get into a back and forth in an online (or any other) forum. While you should be quick to correct statements and provide the truth, arguing over who is at fault in a situation will serve no one. Facts are the best way to disarm fear.

Culture matters — now more than ever.

In an industry where it has been increasingly difficult to hire skilled workers with the passion and compassion needed to serve older adults, you already understand why having a company culture that people seek out is important.

These trying times make this all the more evident. This is why company culture is always the foundation of a company’s success. Your employees are the front line of your defense, and they are an extension of your brand in the community. If they have been treated well, they are more likely to adhere to the safety protocols in place and advocate for how you are responding right now.

Additionally, benefits like essential worker bonuses, additional personal expense credits, housing and other helpful and, some might say necessary, items to protect your workers and their families right now are a good idea.

Beyond those physical benefits you can offer staff, a caring and supportive work environment can go a long way. Can you help by offering counseling, providing them flexibility and other resources to show appreciation and support? Now is the time to put your people first. After all, if you don’t take care of your employees, who will care for the residents?

As our country continues to navigate this pandemic, we know there are difficult days ahead. Still, leaning into your core values and being open and transparent with your employees, residents and families will ensure you can come out of this on the other side. Commit to clear, frequent and respectful communication. Now is the time to overcommunicate. If you start to feel like a broken record about how you are responding to COVID-19, you are doing it right.

Katie Adkisson is a partner at Reed Public Relations, where she oversees crisis communications. Katie is currently managing communications for multiple facilities impacted by COVID-19.