A Crisis Communication Primer for Hospital CEOs

By Dan Millar
and Frederick Bagg

Editor's Note: Dan Millar is a senior consultant at the Institute for Crisis Management, Indianapolis, and Frederick Bagg is director for community relations and marketing at St. Francis Hospital & Health Centers, Indianapolis. Both are members of the AHA's Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development (Bagg is on the board of directors). This article was written partly as a result of conversations with members of SHSMD's board.

As hundreds of hospitals found on Sept. 11, you never know when a crisis will strike, nor will you know its magnitude. Professionals in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania rose to the occasion when the New York and Washington disasters occurred. Many hospital CEOs, communication professionals, physicians and others were faced with the question, "What would I have done? Am I ready for something as catastrophic as this?" As hospital executives review the events of the week following Sept. 11, it provides an opportunity for each institution to review its own crisis communication planning.

Before a crisis hits, the hospital CEO should ask the following questions:

  Do we have an institution-wide commitment to communicate effectively, openly during times of crisis?

If your answer is no, then you may want to rethink your policies during these turbulent times when all audiences demand and expect immediate communication. If your answer is yes, then you need to ask:

  Do I have a separate crisis communication plan in place?

Who is on the team? Your top communication professional should be part of the planning process, and every crisis should have a separate crisis communication team to handle the information demands of internal and external audiences

  Can my plan be implemented within 60 minutes or less (30 minutes or less would be even better)? The sooner and more effectively we begin to communicate, the greater the opportunity to affect the reputation of the institution positively.

The plan should contain:

  • A vulnerability analysis and categories of possible crises.
  • The composition of the crisis communication team and member responsibilities.
  • Policy in place for open, quick, centralized information flow and templates for pre-approved statements for use during times of crisis.
  • Procedures and lists for contacting and recalling operational and communication support staff during business and non-business hours.
  • Process and information (background, media kits, etc.) for working with print and electronic media

Having a plan is not enough. Executives should ask:

  Have I exercised the plan completely?

Many institutions go no further than having the chief communication officer "sign in" at the time of the disaster drill. The better-prepared institutions also will exercise the communication processes, notification and recall of complete communication staffs. They recognize the importance of having a message platform and sticking to it. The best prepared institutions will anticipate the news media's questions and be ready to respond.

Have I evaluated the role of the CEO in times of crisis? Am I prepared to speak to employees or their families, physicians and other key stakeholders? Am I prepared to listen to advisers - to make the tough decisions - to leave the operational and communication detail to my staff?

The World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies have shown us the importance of interactivity with multiple government agencies, emergency teams and other organizations . A crisis can quickly overtax the existing manpower of any organization, so don't be afraid to ask for help. Help can come from a variety of sources - government agencies, other hospitals, individuals and community organizations or even crisis communication consultants.

When a crisis occurs, your organization should have prepared for the unexpected. Do you have an off-site alternative location for a crisis response? Does every member of the response team have at least an abbreviated copy of the plan and crucial notification and recall lists at home or in the car?

Once a crisis occurs, everything moves quickly. The better your preparation, the more time you and your team will have to deal with the unique characteristics of this particular crisis. Ask yourself the following questions:

  In time of crisis, are procedures in place to completely document every aspect of my organization's response?
  What is my institution's message platform?

Every institution should have key messages that support its mission, define its expertise and communicate its actions. Some of these can be prepared in advance, however most must be adapted to the context of the crisis.

  Am I responding quickly, openly, informatively and fairly to media as well as internal and other key audiences?

Openness does not mean that you have to tell everything. It does mean that you have to speak, and that what you say must be confirmed, accurate information. Today, "no comment" will be construed in the most negative way.

  Have we centralized the information flow?
  Have we created mechanisms and processes that will direct media and others to a central source of information where accurate information is being gathered and released? Are we using such tools as our Web site, specialized hotlines, e-mail, and other targeted communication to reach specific audiences and for them to reach us?
  Are we monitoring media (broadcast , internet and print)?
  Have we taken steps for relief or help if the crisis is likely to extend to days and weeks?

When the crisis is winding down, you should focus on evaluating your performance and following up with important audiences. The strongest organizations are those who manage the aftermath as effectively as the crisis itself. The questions you should be asking yourself are:

  How am I going to review the documentation and debrief key personnel in order to prepare a comprehensive report describing the crisis and evaluating our response?
  What key audiences need ongoing, follow-up communication about the crisis and its aftermath and the organization's recovery?
  How will I recognize and reward the heroes, and those who supported the organization during the crisis?

If you can answer these questions affirmatively and constructively, then you and your organization have taken major steps toward being prepared for a crisis. While a crisis focuses on the heroics of individuals and institutions, it is resolved because those individuals and institutions were prepared to rise to the occasion.


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