Crisis communication requires the involvement of senior management, legal counsel and a media trainer

November 1, 2005

When a crisis strikes, all involved should have a plan to follow

A group of community hospitals is faced with a competitive threat when local physicians and an investor announce plans to build a new orthopedic and cardiovascular outpatient surgery center nearby. A leading patient advocacy group assails a managed care plan for its "blatant and conscious" denial of coverage for a new and costly drug aimed at treating a previously untreatable illness. The head of a chain of publicly owned hospitals is indicted on charges of accounting fraud and mismanagement. Sound familiar?

The fact is healthcare is an arena rife with the opportunity for crisis. No business is more personal for so many in times of need. Simply put, healthcare can be a matter of life and death. It is from that perspective that media find it a compelling environment.

How pervasive is this arena for crisis? An informal telephone survey of healthcare communicators conducted by the trade publication Bulldog Reporter recently showed that half of those asked said their organization had been impacted by a crisis at least a handful of times during the past two years. Another 40% said they dealt with a crisis twice during that same period.

A crisis can easily propel an organization off course and weaken competitive advantage. In fact, studies by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) have consistently shown that companies that practice a crisis communications plan typically return to profitability faster than those that don't have such a plan and don't train their management in its use.

Fortunately, developing such a plan need not be elaborate or painstaking. In fact, the simpler the plan is the more likely that those accountable for its implementation will be successful.

A crisis typically makes its way up the chain to senior leadership. If the organization is prepared and trained, such a systematic flow becomes the ideal switch by which the crisis plan is initiated.

While an organization's CEO or others may be responsible for leading the team in its decisions, many staff members will play key roles. To assure future success, we urge that the entire team receive training at least every two years. Successful teams include a mix of internal and external professionals to reflect all sides of these very complex issues. They include legal and regulatory counsel along with managers for marketing, sales and medical operations. All will have a role in information gathering and its analysis as well as assisting in communications planning and implementation.

Likewise, many of the players will be accountable to ensure corrective steps are taken in compliance with what's been communicated. If the organization has a chief ethics officer (or ethics committee) they should be included. Others to consider are outside public relations counsel and a media trainer to assist in message development, tone and delivery.

While healthcare will continue to see its share of crisis, it fortunately has been the field where many examples of well-orchestrated plans have had a positive impact. Think of the original Tylenol tampering episode in the 1980s: the company's willingness to take bold and corrective action quickly despite the negative effects of product recall positioned it as a victim rather than a villain in the minds of the public. It later led to the development of the tamper-proof bottle cap. Most importantly, Tylenol remains a trusted brand.

In a crisis whirlwind, it is likely that such forward-looking thinking may be in short supply. Yet it is the ability of the crisis team to think in the here and now, as well as the hereafter. A bonafide plan, along with periodic and consistent training, will help the crisis team accomplish its overriding objective-to minimize impact on the organization and its reputation while setting the stage for a quick recovery and a return to profitability.

Ben A. Singer is a senior vice president and national practice leader for Health Services at FischerHealth, a strategic communication and public relations agency.