Media training essential for all spokespeople

Crisis plan should include unified message

[Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series that looks at effective media relations. This month, we look at tips and strategies for handling media relations during a crisis. Last month, proven strategies that result in media coverage of hospice events, services, and announcements were described.]

A national study that questions the ethics of some hospice organizations, a proposed bill that cuts hospice reimbursement, or a patient across the country whose situation sparks a right-to-die debate may not seem like a crisis to a hospice manager who focuses on local issues and patients, but the reality is that they can become issues that your local media will want to highlight.

Local media may be focusing on the national issue, but they want to put a local perspective on the issue, which means a reporter may show up unannounced, says Stephanie Smith, director of communications at Hosparus in Louisville, KY. Although the reporter's call or visit might not be a true crisis, every hospice needs to have a plan to deal with the unexpected, she says.

A good crisis communication plan can be implemented in a wide range of situations, says Merrily Orsini, MSSW, managing director of Corecubed, an integrated marketing, design, and public relations company based in Louisville, KY. "If you have a crisis and you have a plan in place, you can respond quickly and get your message out before everyone else."

The first step to a good crisis communication plan is media training prior to a crisis, says Orsini. "It is essential that anyone in the organization that might be called upon to be a spokesperson undergo media training," she says. Knowing not to say "no comment" and being able to consistently put forth the key messages the hospice wants to convey are critical to open communication with media, she adds. "It is also important for every person who speaks to the press to assume they will be quoted."

A crisis communication plan should include:

• Identification of one to two people in the organization who will be the designated spokesperson.

• A unified message that the spokesperson will communicate.

• A process to respond immediately to the crisis situation.

"I always tell people to imagine and to plan for the worst situation imaginable," says Orsini. "If a nurse is accused of killing a patient, for example, what can you do to minimize the effect on the entire hospice?" she asks. "In this situation, you always offer condolences to the family, and then say you are aware of the accusations and you are working with authorities to investigate," she suggests. The amount of information you may be able to provide, based on the circumstances, may be limited, but be sure you are open and honest about what you can share, she says. "Of course, limit the information you share to what the public needs to know, but bring in the human element of the crisis to show your compassion."

Making sure that only your designated spokespeople talk to members of the press starts with every employee's first day on the job, points out Smith. "Our hospice policy is that all media contacts at all times come through me," she says. This policy is covered at orientation, is included in the employee handbook, and is reinforced in e-newsletters to employees, she says. "Employees are good at remembering the policy when they are at work but I have to remind them that the policy applies even if they are friends or neighbors of reporters."

Sources

For more information about effective public relations, contact:

• Merrily Orsini, MSSW, Managing Director, Corecubed, P.O. Box 6046, Louisville KY 40206-0046. Tel: (800) 370-6580, ext. 1 or (502) 425-9770; e-mail: merrily.orsini@corecubed.com.

• Stephanie Smith, Director of Communications, Hosparus, 3532 Ephraim McDowell Dr., Louisville KY 40205. Tel: (502) 719-8925; e-mail: ssmith@hosparus.org.