The thing about crises is you have to be prepared for them before they happen. When a patient comes through your facility’s door presenting with an infectious disease or other critical issue, your team has to be prepared. You can’t wait until that moment to determine a communications strategy. It has to be in place beforehand, or you could inadvertently damage your hospital’s reputation and even negatively affect patient and staff safety.
Some healthcare facilities don’t see the need for a communications plan that, in their minds, may never be used. However, a crisis can present itself in a myriad of ways from an Ebola patient showing up in your ER, an unpopular medical decision made by one of your physicians, or a natural disaster that requires quick response from your facility. In fact, it’s likely that your employees could inadvertently cause a crisis. According to Susan Neisloss in an article for H&HN Daily, “The Institute for Crisis Management reports that executives and managers consistently have triggered 49 percent of all corporate crises (nearly half!); employees account for more than 30 percent. So yes, while it may be difficult or even impossible to predict when a crisis will occur and what it will be, one can predict confidently that it will happen.”1
Build a Team
The first step in creating your communications plan is to ensure you have a talented communications team in place. The ideal team will have strong writing skills with expertise in healthcare. Plus, you must keep the team informed. The communications team needs a direct channel to top hospital leadership, so they are aware of both potential threats and opportunities. They need to understand how staff changes, high-profile patients, and current healthcare news stories could impact the messages they craft for the facility. It will be too late to catch them up on all the details in the middle of a crisis.
Next, you must consider internal communications when developing a plan. Staff members need to be informed of what is happening, what to expect, and what protocol to follow. For instance, if your hospital is suddenly faced with an infectious disease outbreak, your staff will need to be reminded of safety procedures and the proper use of personal protection gear.
Another reason to make sure your staff is informed is because they are a direct conduit of information to the surrounding community. “Employees talk to their family members, their church congregation, the lady behind them in line at the supermarket — all prime opportunities for a conversation about what the organization is doing to respond during a time of crisis,” writes Amanda Anderson for Becker’s Hospital Review.2
Make sure you have the proper tools in place to ensure the quick and accurate distribution of internal messaging. You need to have confidence that the messages are customized for each group within your organization based on their role. An ER doctor will require different information and notifications than a food service worker will. And, all of your employees will need to know the basics of the situation and that it is safe to report to work.
Outside parties, like the media, can have a huge impact on public opinion and damage or enhance your facility’s reputation. You need to know who from your facility will speak to media outlets and how the message will be delivered. Don’t forget to take into account all of your communication platforms including your website, social media, and interviews. Peter Duda of Weber Shandwick recommends that you communicate often and be human. “Set up a regular, frequent cycle of communications across all organizational channels to share the latest news even if the updates are incremental.” And remember, even though speaking on behalf of an organization or a system requires a certain amount of formality, It’s important that your care for patients comes through in all of your messaging.3
Practice, Practice, Practice
Like any other emergency plan, whether it’s a fire drill or building evacuation, practice is essential in ensuring the successful implementation of your crisis communication plan. Duda suggests, scheduling time “to go through potential crisis scenarios so that you can objectively evaluate how your team responded and adjust your process.”3 Neisloss agrees. She notes that by training and practicing response regularly, “a hospital can minimize damage and speed recovery by acting decisively and with confidence following a crisis.”1
Prepare for a crisis before it happens. Build a strong communications team, develop plans for both internal and external communications, and practice your response. Protect your patients, your staff, and your facility’s reputation.