Disease outbreaks and contamination can be a threat to any organization, whether a hotel or a cruise line. It can be especially damaging to the reputation of a hospital. I was contacted by the New Hampshire Business Review to comment on a Hepatitis C outbreak in a local hospital and how they responded to the situation.
My perspective was based on experience in crisis communications, hospital PR and a similar contamination event in Denver.
The Business Review published my eight rules for any organization responding to a crisis:
1. Respond to media inquiries early , even if just to say you are investigating the problem. Otherwise, media reports and social media chatter will define the crisis for you.
2. Express concern for those harmed in terms of your values. Example: “The health of our patients is our highest priority.”
3. Don’t speculate. Initial reports during an event are often wrong.
4. Keep employees informed , so they know how to respond to formal and informal inquiries. Even though they may not speak to the press, their opinions and comments carry weight with family, friends and neighbors. Employees want and deserve news first.
5. Have a crisis plan in place. That way, you can vet certain statements and steps with your legal counsel out of the heat of a crisis. There are certain crises that are predictable. For a healthcare organization, it can be equipment contamination. All companies can have issues with employees (embezzlement, drug use).
6. Commit to ongoing communications with your organization’s publics, including former patients, doctors with admitting privileges, employees and neighbors to your facilities.
7. Support the community in tangible ways. Companies can sponsor fund-raising and other events that demonstrate their core values.
8. Be responsive to media requests. A reputation for openness can affect how the news media covers your institution. It is human nature to be suspicious of an organization with a track record of secretiveness.
It makes a difference if the institution was the cause of the problem. Jensen Farms in Colorado went out of business after many died from the cantaloupe listeria tragedy. Hospitals with drug-using employees are also victims. This should not be part of the institution’s response, but it does play a role in how the public views the crisis.
Our PR firm has provided crisis communications plans, training and media services for decades. A crisis plan protects your reputation when your company or nonprofit is in the spotlight. Certain crises are predictable for different industries. It is far better to vet those messages in advance.