Prepare, React, Recover: A Step-By-Step Guide for Crisis Communications in Healthcare

Expect the unexpected – that’s the first fundamental when it comes to managing a crisis. The others: Crisis is never convenient, addressing the crisis correctly can help resolve it, and playbooks are essential. At a recent conference of the Kansas Association of Public Information Officers, our Director of Marketing and Client Services, Lindsey Elliott, shared her experience in healthcare public relations along with her three-step plan approach.

Step 1: Prepare

The first thing you need is a Crisis Communications Plan. It is a living, breathing document that is thought-out and prepared during times of calm – and applicable to almost every crisis situation imaginable. Each time you use the plan in action, perform a postmortem analysis after the dust settles to make updates according to lessons learned.

Your Crisis Communications Plan should identify your spokesperson, your crisis management team, assigned responsibilities, a communication tree, resources and sample messages. It should be a ready-made resource with necessary information that’s quick to access in a pinch. The process of developing it will help you to find and fill communication gaps.

Your plan should involve sample scenarios for what you determine to be your top potential crises, both minor and severe. Identify the potential scale of each incident and who may be affected by it. Develop tiered responses to sample scenarios based on the severity of the crisis. For example, how and to whom will you communicate if there’s a small fire that was quickly extinguished versus an active, rapidly spreading fire? Prepare for scenarios that live in between the extremes as well.

Another important way to prepare? Foster internal brand ambassadors who feel equipped to support your organization’s communication needs in a crisis. Provide messaging guidance for department leaders, managers and frontline staff because they are often the first to be asked, sometimes before you even know the full extent of the incident:

  • Implement tools to help them with communication, both internally and externally.
  • Form advisory groups with a diverse mix of people across the organization.
  • Train them in media relations tactics.
  • Run through mock scenarios.
  • Arm them with something to say, even if it’s vague: Hi, thank you for calling. I’m sorry, but I don’t have all the information at this time. I can assure you that safety is our top priority. We will provide more information as soon as we have it. You can check our website and our social media for updates.

Step 2: React

You must communicate to the crisis. Remember these points:

  • Communication with employees always comes first.
  • Use all channels necessary – but choose them carefully. For example, depending on the incident and how controversial it might be, it may be best to avoid posts about it on social media – where the true narrative can quickly get away from you by public commentators.
  • Expect or at least be amenable to the fact that your communication tactics may need to change during and/or in response to crises.
  • In all communications, incorporate empathy and understanding.
  • Be prepared to answer all incoming questions in a timely fashion.
  • Always respond to interview requests, even if you are politely declining. It’s important to maintain strong, respected and bidirectional relationships with the media.

When the media calls – be ready. Great interviews don’t just happen. The most successful, confident news sources do their homework before the cameras roll or the phone rings. You must be prepared and in control. If you receive a call, ask your own questions before providing answers to theirs. Find out the reporter’s deadline and what information is being sought, then set a time when you’ll get back to the reporter. Draft potential questions and responses and have your media relations team/public information officer practice answering them, especially the hardballs and potential curve balls.

During an interview, here’s what to do:

  • Keep it concise. Short, simplified answers help ensure your soundbite or quote will be used correctly and in full context.
  • Be prepared to bridge back to your points. A bridge is a quick, smooth transition to the statements you need to make – in other words, redirecting questions back to your key messages while avoiding hypotheticals or inaccurate statements. Examples: Yes, and meanwhile, we are… / No, and that’s because… / The real issue is…/ The key things to remember are…”
  • Only answer questions you know. It’s okay not to know an answer. Tell the reporter if you do not know and follow up when you do.
  • Take advantage of the “anything else you’d like to say?” option. It’s a classic question almost all reporters will ask. Take this time to reiterate a key message or two.
  • Convey empathy and understanding. It’s important to show you are in command of the situation, but it’s also okay to show your human side at appropriate levels for the issue at hand.

During an interview, here’s what to avoid:

  • Don’t say “no comment” (see above for how to respond if you don’t have an answer)
  • Don’t allow yourself to say many words with no real substance or meaning
  • Don’t think about your next answer when you should be listening to the reporter
  • Don’t fall for the silence trick reporters sometimes use to get you to ad-lib
  • Don’t assume something/anything is off the record
  • Don’t let an inaccurate statement from the interviewer go uncorrected – and be careful not to repeat the inaccuracy as you correct it.

Step 3: Recover

Even when the storm has passed, your crisis management efforts should be ongoing. Assess the “temperature” and correct any missteps made (and evolve your Crisis Communications Plan and processes as needed). If you were at fault in the crisis, own it and make it right. If you were not at fault, protect your reputation.

It’s especially important to remember that even if the crisis is over, employees may still be feeling it. A crisis – especially if it involves a traumatic event – can resonate with employees for decades. Continue to engage with your employees, sharing updates and assurances of steps being taken to avoid a repeat crisis in the future. Effective crisis communications have meaning, and they often have momentum. Keep the momentum going toward positivity, perseverance and better outcomes, both internally and externally.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

— Maya Angelou