Does your crisis communications plan need updating?

The healthcare industry is made up of people who handle crises on a daily basis. They are great under pressure and can make quick decisions when it comes to dealing with life and death aspects of human nature. But while they are focused on the immediate care of patients, they and their administrators can sometimes overlook a crisis that might be developing concurrently: a public relations (PR) crisis.

When it comes to handling a PR crisis, organizations need to make sure they prepare ahead of time, says Adele Cehrs, president of Epic PR Group, a public relations firm in Alexandria, VA, that assists corporations with crisis communications. Good preparation will save headaches, panic, and money down the road.

Most providers have at least a rudimentary crisis communications plan, Cehrs notes, even if it as simple as referring inquiries to the CEO and telling everyone else to keep quiet. Whether your plan is that basic or much more sophisticated, chances are good that it needs updating, Cehrs says. The largest reason is the explosion of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

“With the widespread adoption of social media, your organization’s image or reputation can be called into question around the world instantaneously,” Cehrs says. “That changes everything. You can’t rely on an old plan in which you just didn’t comment and hoped the local reporters gave up. And even a good crisis communications plan from several years ago probably didn’t factor in social media enough.”

With more than 3.5 billion pieces of content shared each week on Facebook, 234 million websites, and 126 million bloggers, tracking online conversations is a challenge, Cehrs says. Crises in the healthcare industry require quick, strategic responses to minimize damage and avoid fueling the fire, she says. The process begins with fact finding, identifying whether the issue is in fact a crisis, and assembling the appropriate stakeholders to discuss how to respond or not respond. (See the story below for other advice.)

How you respond to a crisis will determine how the public will perceive your organization not only immediately, but in the future. Your response could be the difference in viewing what happened as an isolated incident or a fundamental problem with your organization/company, Cehrs says. It might determine whether someone decides to use your services or take their business elsewhere.

Before responding, remember that a consumer’s reactions and evaluations during a crisis will be determined by your response. Crisis responses that emphasize emotions and concern for people (as opposed to messages focusing on the law, justice, and punishment) greatly improve the public’s perceptions of the organization, Cehrs says.

Cehrs cites research from the University of Missouri, where a study focused on the reactions of readers when exposed to a news story about an organization’s crisis. One group read an “anger-frame” story that blamed the organization for the crisis. Another group read a “sadness-frame” story that focused on the victims and how they were hurt by the crisis. Those who read the “anger-frame” story read the news less closely and held more negative attitudes toward the company than those exposed to the “sadness-frame” version.

Before you make a big announcement or decision, it is essential that you prepare for and consider the worst-case scenario. If you’re concerned that a decision or a policy will be unpopular with consumers, do the necessary research and preparation before making a public statement, Cehrs suggests. If you’re anticipating negative feedback, consider investing in focus groups or surveys to gauge consumer reactions ahead of time.