Healthcare Marketing: Eight Rules for Crisis Management

Healthcare Marketers Can Learn Valuable Lessons from the Penn State Scandal.

Every organization fears it. A crisis of public confidence and perception.   Hopefully as a healthcare marketer, you won’t be faced with a major one.  But most likely, sometime in your career you will.  Maybe more than once.  And during a crisis is no time to be learning on the fly.  It’s much better to first learn from others and then you will be prepared if and when your crisis comes.

Anne Hancock Toomey and Joe Tye wrote an article for Hospital and Health Networks titled “Cardinal Rules for Crisis Response” and examined how Penn State handled their recent crisis.  Though I’m hesitant to criticize how anyone handles a crisis, because it’s so much easier to do so from a rear view mirror than in the middle of the crisis.  Afterwards you can examine results and reactions, which are not available when the crisis is occurring.   But one can certainly look at what happened and why it happened so the same mistakes aren’t repeated.  Based on that hindsight Toomey and Tye offer eight extremely important rules to follow when a crisis occurs.  Here are those rules with abbreviated comments for each:

  • Develop a crisis communication plan. Any organization can fall victim to a public relations crisis, often without warning. Those who have prepared for the possibility and have developed a communication plan beforehand can emerge with an enhanced reputation for integrity.
  • Know when to apologize. The practice of apologizing for medical errors was pioneered by the Lexington VA Medical Center in Kentucky 20 years ago and since has been demonstrated to prevent PR problems and, actually, to reduce malpractice costs. Sincerely apologizing to and, when appropriate, compensating an aggrieved party can save a world of unwanted trouble, expense and exposure.
  • Stay true to your values. Every organization should have a set of values that guide behavior and decision-making. The commitment to integrity should be a guiding beacon at all times — never more so than in a time of crisis.
  • Tell it first. A wait-and-see approach will almost always keep you in a reactive mode. Reluctance to speak first can destroy trust you’ve worked hard to build with the stakeholders who matter to you.
  • Tell it all. Convincing yourself that you can keep a problem secret is dangerous and naive.
  • Tell it yourself. People trust other people, not a faceless institution. Your doctors, employees and patients want to hear from you. Not from a lawyer. Not from a PR person. Not from a nameless statement. In times of crisis, they want to hear from the leaders responsible for addressing the issue
  • Get others to tell it. Internal stakeholders — physicians, employees and even patients — can be strong advocates for an organization if they are informed, inspired and asked to help.
  • Communication doesn’t stop when the crisis has passed. A reputation can be destroyed in one day, but it takes years to rebuild, if it can be salvaged at all. Communication — internally and externally — should be ongoing following a crisis.

A crisis is never good.  But the future of an organization is often not determined by the crisis but by how it’s managed.  If handled properly, a crisis can even enhance a brand.  But for that to be possible, healthcare marketers must learn from the mistakes and successes of others and be prepared.  To do so would be very wise indeed.

Anne Hancock Toomey is a partner with Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock Inc., a health care public affairs firm with offices in Nashville and Chicago. Joe Tye, M.H.A., M.B.A., is the CEO of Values Coach Inc., a health care consulting and training firm in Solon, Iowa. He is also a member of Speakers Express.

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