From Patient Care Issues to Pandemics

Jul. 26, 2021

A Crisis Communication Plan can help you be ready to respond  



By Mike Milligan, President Legato Healthcare Marketing

“Hospital executives admit to overpaying staff by millions of dollars.”

This isn’t a hypothetical statement. I was directly involved in helping a new CEO manage this internal “crisis” when it threatened the hospital’s trusted reputation. More recently, COVID-19 showed the world that the unthinkable can happen.

These are examples of two different categories of crises:

  1. Smoldering: Generally not widely known within an organization. When/if it goes public, the problem could result in fines, legal damage, and a tarnished reputation. A few actual examples I’ve helped manage:
    • Firing of popular providers.
    • Low quality scores affecting business and patient perceptions.
    • Closing of popular services.
    • Medication thefts.
    • Impersonating a nurse.
    If a smoldering problem isn't properly addressed, it can turn into a sudden crisis.

  2. Sudden: These are managed through disaster planning and protocols. Examples include:
    • Public health: COVID-19, Ebola, SARS, avian flu.
    • Natural disaster: tornadoes, etc.
    • Facility disaster: explosion, chemical, fire.
    • Mass casualty: shooting, plane crash, multiple-injury traffic accident.
    • Institutional: medical error, patient safety, malfeasance.

As we all learned from COVID-19, crises never unfold exactly as anticipated. The intent of a crisis communication plan is not to anticipate every possible future scenario. Instead, it’s designed to be used as a blueprint, enabling your hospital to be agile and responsive in any type of crisis. Key steps in the development process of this type of plan include:.

  • Form a Crisis Communications Team
    • This team will write your crisis management plan and execute it.
    • Identify a spokesperson(s) from the group (not always the CEO), also known as a Public Information Officer. The spokesperson may be different depending on the nature of the crisis.
    • Provide media training to each spokesperson.
  • Brainstorm Potential Crises
    • Anticipate potential generic smoldering and sudden crises.
    • Form action/communications plans for each scenario.
  • Develop a Crisis Communication Plan
    Your brainstorming process should lead to the creation of a Crisis Communication Plan, tailored to each of the potential scenarios your team identifies. Be sure to include:
    • Situation analysis: Key crisis drivers, affected areas, who is affected and how, the most urgent needs, capacities to address them.
    • Objectives: You can’t predict every type of crisis, but your team can agree on the most important, high-level outcomes for each scenario (e.g., maintaining the safety of all patients and protecting frontline workers).
    • Identify audiences: Think “internal” first when communicating:
      1. Key stakeholders
      2. Employees
      3. Community
  • Create messaging:
    • Develop key messages and talking points: You won’t know the exact issues to address at this point, but there are general questions you can expect to answer, based on the type of crisis you encounter.
    • What are the top 3 things you want people to know? Anything more than that will be forgotten.
    • As a crisis occurs, your team will need to refine and elaborate on messages.
  • Identify potential communications tactics, e.g.:
    • Letters to key stakeholders
    • Community forums
    • Hospital publication
    • Marketing materials (digital and traditional)

Preparing a crisis management plan now can help your hospital avoid the ramifications of rushed decisions, and incorrect or inconsistent communication, which can translate into a longer-than-necessary recovery.

If you have questions about creating a crisis communication strategy, please reach out to me via email or call 920-544-8102 ext. 101. I’ve been in the trenches with too many hospitals forced into panic mode because they never believed the “unthinkable” could happen to them.