When Lightning Strikes: Planning for Crisis Communications

By Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer

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A crisis communications plan is a bit like the safety air bags in your car. You always want to have them, but you hope they’ll never be needed. It’s always bad news.

Preparedness is the key to handling “bad news” in hospital and healthcare communications. It’s simply good “PR insurance” to have contingency protocols at the ready when bad things happen. (That’s “when, not “if.”)

Crisis issues—ranging from relatively minor incidents to major disasters—will arise without the luxury of forewarning or time to decide what needs to be done. From a public relations perspective, it is important to plan for a crisis before the event ever occurs so that when it does happen, you’ll be able to effectively handle the situation.

A contingency plan will not have all the answers, but will help guide facility administrators, communications professionals, doctors and spokespeople to navigate an issue with an action plan for anticipated actions and responses.

Dust off your old Crisis Communications Plan, or start fresh, keeping these tips in mind:

Stay calm: Crisis events create a sense of urgency. It feels counterintuitive, but this is the time to calmly consider each action step. The crisis could be compounded by quick and poorly-considered decisions.

Identify a spokesperson: In all communications efforts, the organization should speak with a unified and consistent voice. During a crisis, information from multiple, and uncoordinated sources can make things worse with confusion and misinformation.

Ensure information balance and accuracy: Crisis situations are at risk for a battle of “he-said-she said.” While the other side or another source may have a sensational story that the media will want to run, it might not be a fair assessment of what truly happened.

Not talking is not an option. When organizations are silent in the wake of a crisis it usually fuels pubic and media speculation. Telling your story early on, and providing as much detail as possible, and will serve the organization better than waiting.

Factual information. Avoid speculation and unverified facts. Be prepared to say, “I don’t know,” or “I’ll check and get back with you.” Don’t gamble with unconfirmed information.

Learn from experience. Ask, What can be done to better handle situations in the future? Often, training (or retraining) is helpful preparation. And throughout the ranks, cross training and education can add depth to the organization or department capabilities.

While each crisis is unique and has its own challenges, advance preparation will help prevent an issue from being compounded and mitigate the downside risk.

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Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer at Healthcare Success
Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is Chief Executive Officer of Healthcare Success, one of the nation's leading healthcare and digital marketing agencies. Over the past 20 years, Stewart has marketed and consulted for over 1,000 healthcare clients, ranging from practices and hospitals to multi-billion dollar corporations. A frequent speaker, Stewart has shared his expertise at over 200 venues nationwide. As an author and expert resource, Stewart has also written for many leading industry publications, including the 21,000 subscriber Healthcare Success Insight blog. Stewart also co-authored, "Cash-Pay Healthcare: Start, Grow & Perfect Your Cash-Pay Healthcare Business." Stewart began his career with leading advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, where he marketed Fortune 500 clients such as Wells Fargo and Bally's Total Fitness.

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