James M. Berklan

Many things about aging and long-term care are “givens.” At the top of the list: People grow older, become less healthy and, sooner or later, die. Pretty tough circumstances to try to build a good working reputation around. In fact, with a uniquely 21st century poison in play, it is harder than ever for providers.

That would explain the serious crowd last week at a session on reputation management at the annual SMASH conference.

A panel of national marketing and online experts faced a room full of providers concerned about something that didn’t exist a generation ago: Digital and online complaints.

While it’s sometimes impossible to discern whether an online commenter is truly a dissatisfied resident or family member or just a disgruntled competitor or employee, the experts were united that negative comments must be responded to, and in a timely manner.

Responses shouldn’t necessarily be confined to just negative remarks, emphasized Dan Hutson, vice president of communications and marketing for be.group.

“If they’re positive, say ‘thank you.’ If they’re negative, apologize but tread carefully,” he advised. “Don’t just ignore negative online comments.”

Providers, of course, often have high-strung family members to deal with, complicating challenges exponentially.

“If somebody gets a bad Big Mac, they might not go online,” observed Meghan Lubin, senior vice president for corporate marketing and communications for Sunrise Senior Living. “But if somebody’s mom gets bad care, it will bring out irate feelings — sometimes feelings people might not even know they have.”

How to deal with such combustible scenarios was a perfect premise for a session at SMASH, the annual conference of senior care marketing managers, which was held just west of Chicago.

Take your pick: Ben Franklin, Will Rogers, Warren Buffett … they all have great quotes on how quickly a good reputation can be lost after a long time of building it up. But none of them — not even Buffett who can burnish any dings with prodigious amounts of cash — have had to worry about digital complaints and their ability to travel around the world in the blink of an eye. 

“The game is changing,” noted Colin Danaher, manager of enterprise sales for Glassdoor, an online jobs and recruiting website that analyzes workplaces. “People are much more likely to go online to Yelp if they have a negative experience.”

They antidote, of course, is to generate good reviews, Hutson said — with one major caveat. They must be genuine good reviews.

“Any review from the public is an opportunity to engage. Reviews are a prod for us to all be better,” he added optimistically.

He also advised, however, that providers should “calibrate” responses appropriately. Don’t go to pieces or produce lengthy responses for complaints that are, on their face, not credible.

“For those who are upset and make a good case, you must address them,” he quickly added. “Don’t leave even old negative reviews” unrebutted.

Sunrise’s Lubin pointed out another hopeful note about seeing occasional negative comments online: They can alert you to issues that prospective residents might ask about. Which brings us to a basic, but all too often overlooked, point: Someone working on your behalf must continually monitor online mentions of your facility.

When someone complains of a supposedly egregious incident, you should not only respond but also tell them you want to talk with them, Lubin advised. Then do your best to further the discussion offline, she added.

Providers must realize that trying to squelch online comments altogether is a bad strategy. Research conducted by massive Sunrise Senior Living backs it up, Lubin said.

“The more the reviews, the greater the likelihood for move-ins,” she reported.

Then, once you get them in the door, it’s up to you to show — in person — why you deserve a good reputation.

James M. Berklan is McKnight’s Editor. Follow him @JimBerklan.