When something has gone wrong and your hospital or health system is under scrutiny, it may seem the simplest response is to say nothing. But that can be a huge mistake, because “no comment” never looks good.

Healthcare organizations sometimes mishandle crises by buttoning up, issuing terse statements through public relations, and encouraging the public to think they have something to hide, says Matt Friedman, co-owner of Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications.

That can result from people thinking that they must follow internal procedures to the letter, fearing that any deviation will cost them their careers, he says. That is one reason the internal procedures must be constructed so that people can be transparent and communicate effectively.

“Some healthcare organizations like to talk through heavily lawyerized statements, in the name of protection and safety, without thinking of direct communication with their audience,” he says. “I worked with one hospital that was about to settle with government over a marketing issue, nothing to do with patient care. I wrote a message from the CEO to the public that was forthright about the matter, trying to get ahead of any publicity. The attorney for the hospital that handled the settlement with the Department of Justice completely rewrote all the materials and made them sound like lawyerized stuff that would be submitted to a government bureaucrat.”

Friedman had to negotiate with the lawyer to balance the legal message with the information the hospital wanted to convey to its audience.

“If only the legal message got out, the community may have been confused and unnecessarily nervous,” he says. “It’s a good strategy to negotiate this on the front end so that the message getting out is effective and limits how long the bad news is out. Otherwise, you can have lawyers overruling whoever wrote the original message, and only the legal message makes it out to the public.”