In a crisis, be prepared: It’s OK to say that you’re sorry

If your institution is the lead story on the evening news, chances are good that it won’t be for all the right reasons. Rather, you’ll find that the risk management department is suddenly faced with the challenge of saving the institution’s reputation by saying the right thing in the right way.

Even if you have a public relations department, the risk manager often has to get involved with high-profile crises, says Doug Levy, JD, senior vice president of Fleishman-Hillard Public Relations in San Francisco. That means you have to know what to say and how to say it. Those situations can be immensely challenging, but Levy says there actually is the opportunity to make gains in the situation. When public statements are handled well, you can actually improve your institution’s public image during the crisis, he notes. But that can happen only if you plan ahead. "The best way to minimize damage is to prepare, plan, and practice," Levy says.

Plan ahead for crisis response

Levy spoke at the recent meeting of the American Society for Healthcare Risk Management (ASHRM) in Nashville, TN, and stresses that much of the work in responding to a crisis has to be done ahead of time. The health care provider must establish good relationships with the local and national media, and also the community at large, before any crisis happens. "That fills the goodwill bank, and every step in creating your reputation provides information and decisions essential in being prepared for a crisis," he adds. "If you wait until a crisis happens, you’ll just have to do a lot of the foundation steps in a hurry, at high cost and at risk of mistakes."

Your institution’s internal reputation also is important, Levy says, so don’t overlook the message you send to employees and affiliates. When communicating with different audiences, it can be wise to tailor the message to their different concerns, but be careful not to make them contradictory. "Eavesdroppers are everywhere," he says. "Consistency is especially critical with internal audiences. They watch for inconsistency."

Never lie when responding to trouble

The message delivered to the public must be honest at all times, Levy says. No matter how much you want to protect the institution, do not be tempted to deny too much. "Your reputation can be irrevocably damaged, not by the medical or institutional mistake, but by how the institution reacts and responds," he says. "The public will forgive mistakes, but not dishonesty, disingenuousness, or arrogance."

When a crisis erupts, you should be able to respond with a plan that you have already mapped out and tested, Levy says. Who actually speaks for the hospital is particularly important, he says. Spokespeople should be trained and tested, and Levy says it is absolutely imperative that one be a physician, and preferably not the CEO. The ideal spokesperson should be credible, comfortable, appealing on camera, coachable by the risk manager, constantly available, calm, and possess great stamina.

Express sympathy for the victim

When you first hear of a crisis that will get media attention, Levy says you should assume that it will become public sooner rather than later. But don’t overreact. If you respond as if the situation is a huge event, the media will follow suit even if they didn’t intend to originally. He offers these additional suggestions:

  • Focus on the harmed party, not the institution. Avoid talking too much about how "we" are affected or feeling.
  • Be completely candid. It’s OK to respond to a question with, "I don’t know that now." But avoid saying, "No comment," which always sounds bad.
  • Begin every statement with a note of compassion for the harmed party.
  • Accept blame if an error was made. You can assume there will be a lawsuit filed some day, so you should worry about the court of public opinion now. Expressing regret for someone’s situation does not increase legal liability.
  • Use your institution’s web site. The media and the public will go there seeking information, so you should use that resource as a way to get your message out.