When planning to respond effectively to adverse events, it is important to include a crisis communication plan, says Janey Bishoff, an expert in crisis management and crisis management planning.

Bishoff taught corporate crisis management at Boston University, and now is owner of Bishoff Communications in Needham, MA. She says a crisis communication plan is essential to protect the organization’s reputation.

“It is a critical risk management component, and the best way to assure leadership and key management that everyone in the organization knows what to do and what not to do when any adverse event occurs,” she says. “The plan should not be a hefty notebook that sits on a shelf, but rather a series of checklists and charts that are readily available and can be easily consulted for quick referral in any urgent, fast-moving situation.”

A key part of the plan is a designated crisis team including members for each defined functional area of the organization, Bishoff says. There must be backups assigned for each functional area of the team, she explains, because crises rarely occur during the normal workday when everyone is in the area and on site.

“The backups on the crisis team are critical to ensure that the organization is prepared to respond, even when key leaders are on a plane or halfway around the world,” Bishoff says. “For some healthcare organizations, some members of the crisis team may only be designated for certain types of situations. For example, if the situation does not involve patients and clinical staff, some key clinical members of the crisis team may not be needed.”

Know the Roles

For the plan to be effective, everyone on the crisis team must be intimately familiar with the roles and prescribed processes, she says. The designated spokespeople for the organization must undergo media training. Often, the spokesperson in a crisis must be a top leader, not the “everyday” spokesperson, Bishoff says.

“It is essential that those leaders undergo rigorous media training before any adverse event occurs,” she says. “Everyone in the organization should know that there is a crisis team, that there are designated spokespeople, and that no one else should ever speak on behalf of the organization.”

Communication in the world outside an organization is instantaneous, so communication inside should be, too, she says. The crisis team must be ready to meet, in person or virtually, to respond and take on their responsibilities on a moment’s notice.

The immediate response must acknowledge the situation, Bishoff says. This does not mean that the organization needs to assume responsibility for what happened, nor does it mean that the response must include information about how leadership will fix the situation.

“It simply means that the leadership understands that there is a negative situation, and is taking appropriate steps to investigate and find out what happened,” she says. “Ideally, the response will include a promise to inform stakeholders once the investigation has occurred.”

The immediate response may need to communicate instructions to certain stakeholders, Bishoff says. It may need to inform stakeholders to prevent harm or worsening of the situation. For example, because of certain situations, leadership may need to tell visitors not to come to the hospital, or tell the public not to come to the hospital’s ED for the next 24 hours, she explains.

“The immediate response must demonstrate compassion — even if the organization is not responsible, and even if the organization is going to have to prove that it is not responsible,” Bishoff says. “To inspire confidence among stakeholders, the immediate response must communicate that the leadership is in charge and intends to find out what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. To the extent possible, the immediate response should demonstrate that the organization is committed to be as transparent as possible.”

Elements of a Plan

Bishoff recommends these essential elements of a crisis communication plan:

  • Crisis simulation. The best way for the team to prepare is to conduct a crisis simulation (at least one per year), just as clinicians often run drills for emergencies. At minimum, a tabletop simulation should be conducted.
  • Holding statements in the drawer. A set of basic “holding” statements should be developed and readily available to be customized and issued on a moment’s notice. Such statements should be written before any adverse event occurs to ensure consistency with the organization’s key messaging, and reinforce those messages.
  • Media/social media monitoring. Develop a system for comprehensive media monitoring to be apprised of news media coverage and stakeholder reaction.
  • Continued crisis team vigilance. Once the initial hours of the situation are over, it often is too easy to resume normalcy and neglect further “clean-up” responsibilities, such as follow-up communications, that are needed to protect reputation long term.
  • Dark website page. Ideally, the organization should maintain a dark website page that is not accessible by the general public, and not active until needed. This website can be used to provide information for various stakeholders about the crisis.

There are multiple pitfalls to avoid in crisis communication, Bishoff says. The first is not responding in a timely manner, or not responding at all. Responding publicly in a crisis today is essential and must be immediate, she says.

“Failing to respond is seen as suspect, as if the organization has something to hide or does not care. Even though fact-gathering in a crisis is critical and often takes time, waiting too long to respond may diminish trust and negatively impact reputation long term,” she says. “Most importantly, by not responding in a timely way, the organization cedes control of the message. In these situations, news media and social media can quickly define a negative message, which will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.”

Another pitfall is not showing compassion. Even if the facts are sketchy, and even if litigation is likely to occur that will establish fault or responsibility, the initial response must demonstrate compassion for any individuals who were hurt, taken ill, or died, Bishoff says.

“This is where it is critical to have an experienced crisis manager participate in guiding the response since attorneys, in an effort to protect the organization in future litigation, often advocate that the organization say nothing,” Bishoff says. “In-house communications professionals, and even savvy, but less experienced external communications consultants, are not used to, nor should be put in a position to, argue with the organization’s legal counsel.”