Open communication lines to the public

Enhance your reputation in the Y2K crisis

By Ronald Hanser
Hanser & Associates
West Des Moines, IA

What happens to corporations when they are in a crisis? Research performed in 1993 showed that 80% of the general public shunned companies such as Pepsi, Exxon, Sears, and Dow Corning when they were in a crisis.

To translate that into what it means for your hospitals in a year 2000 (Y2K) crisis: People will tend to stay away, and your revenue will crash.

Why? Because people become angry if they think an organization has refused to accept responsibility for its actions. They also believe that an organization is being less than forthcoming if it provided incomplete or inaccurate information. Additionally, they believe the institution is putting profit before public interest, patient safety, and patient health.

Defining a crisis

A straightforward definition of a crisis is anything that disrupts the normal flow of business, and Y2K already is disrupting normal activity. During the year 2000 transition, the outside world will be considering the organization externally, in terms of its behavior, activities, and values.

To not talk about a seemingly obvious problem, such as Y2K, especially in the light of public opinion, can reflect negatively on your organization. You can be perceived as not working in the public interest.

The objective throughout the Y2K remediation process is to do the right things for the right reasons — to ensure you are able to continue to provide high-quality health care services to the people in your community who depend on you. Unfortunately, many health care organizations don’t tell people they are doing this. Your values — whether they be openness and connection to the community or something else — will be communicated by your actions.

Because the public is going to be paying attention to the external view, you need to be "out front" before you have a crisis. Preparing your public helps them perceive your organization as being one of the good guys. You are doing things to protect the public safety. And, attorneys point out that you are also talking to the potential jury pool.

You also can reduce Y2K’s influence by considering all the things that may go wrong with Y2K. Anticipation and preparation help you catch many potential problems. Seize those opportunities for your organization to assess the risk, and you will be able to achieve your communication objectives while better utilizing your resources.

Creating a Y2K plan

The basics of a plan include objectives and strategies, because the tactics of what your organization will do in a crisis are situational. They can change from day to day and from hour to hour as new information becomes available. The objectives include defining what success in January 2000 will be. Do you want to be where you were, in a better position, or nowhere at all?

Your CEO should be directly involved in developing your plan. There are certain instances in which the public expects the CEO to step up to the podium and explain what has happened. He or she also is expected to express sadness and concern and say the organization has always placed the health and safety of its patients, employees, and others in the community as its highest priority. The board of directors also should have input regarding defining the optimum legal and financial reputation outcomes.

In addition, you will need a mechanism that helps you declare there is a crisis and you’re moving at a quick pace. You will need one or more letters stating clearly what you are going to say during and after a crisis. You’ll also need to have all your resources ready. These resources include people, the facilities to handle a crisis, communications, and even the money necessary so staff can buy whatever they need.

Organizations that have successfully weathered a crisis have taken the initiative. Glendale (CA) Adventist Medical Center, for example, had a respiratory therapist publicly admit to killing 50 terminally ill patients in March 1998. Then the therapist recanted his story. A full-blown investigation ensued, and Advent kept the public fully aware of its progress. The staff associated with the employee were put on suspension so they could fully cooperate with the investigation and the patients and families wouldn’t be concerned.

Advent also set up a hotline staffed by four retired physicians. Those physicians fielded calls from patients and concerned family members.

As health care providers, consider talking to your important constituents when you know a major problem is looming. Become the source of information rather than someone else. Why? Consider the environmental and public relations disaster of the Exxon Valdez supertanker oil spill that took place off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

The oil spill became a significant public relations’ problem because of a lack of CEO involvement coupled with outright resistance of the executive team to become involved, to go to the scene, to take responsibility, and to publicly admit that the accident was a terrible thing.

Always tell the truth

The essential components of success in a crisis, therefore, are to actively communicate, never speculate, and always tell the truth. Your public relations staff know that; they will need your support as year 2000 approaches.

Also, use multiple channels of communication during a crisis. You can use the media to get your message out. Many of the major trade publications and metro newspapers are going to do extraordinary jobs because they take the time to understand the issues.

At the same time, you should never totally rely on the news media to spread your story. You need redundant communication systems that can move large volumes of information accessible to your most important constituents. This includes broadcast faxing to prepared lists. A crisis communications expert also can show you how to use advertisements, Web sites, and hotlines to communicate your unfiltered message. The important thing is to do — not just say — the things that your stakeholders expect you to do.

In summary, your health care organization can maintain its positive reputation during Y2K by behaving in a way that people expect. You must care, take action, prevent recurrence of the problem, be accountable and responsible, and be a part of the solution. And above all, remember to tell the truth.

(Editor’s note: Ronald Hanser is a member of the Rx2000 speaker’s bureau, a service provided by the Rx2000 Solutions Institute in Minneapolis. The institute is a nonprofit, member-supported organization helping the U.S. health care system prepare for the year 2000.)