You may never expect to be caught in a public relations crisis, but then no one ever does. HOWEVER, at some point you are likely going to have to manage some healthcare PR crisis such as an impaired physician, a dumpster disaster, or other unforeseen event. Social communication should be a part of any PR crisis management, whether social media activity is seen as the cause OR considered as part of the solution.
In many cases, this topic comes up as an excuse for healthcare marketers not to get involved with social media in the first place. Whether you’re afraid that social media will spark a crisis or simply add to it, there is power in being proactive. I’ve read a lot of articles giving advice on how to prevent and/or approach a PR crisis, but I haven’t found one that I really bought into. That’s why I decided to give my own advice for my audience to consider.
There are two components of healthcare public relations crisis management (or any industry crisis management, for that matter): Preparation and Planning.
Prepare for a Public Relations Crisis Ahead of Time
If you wait until a crisis happens to summon the “social media Gods” then shame on you. Social presence is not a short-term commitment. You have to build your reputation and relationships ahead of time. You have to have a command of the platforms where you choose to exist, and you have to recognize that not all problems can be solved through social media. Sometimes pen and paper or a good old telephone works best.
1. Identify your fans ahead of time.
If you have a good social presence and interact regularly, you’re bound to have fans who say good things about you. Identify them and keep that list handy. If you don’t have a list of people you can count on to come to your aid, then start getting more social and interactive. You may need those core supporters to come to your defense sometime in the future.
2. Have examples of acceptable responses already crafted so you aren’t starting from scratch during a crisis.
You can’t possibly know what crisis might happen in the future, but you can have a starting point ready to save time when one does take place. Having discussions about what to say and why is important in crafting a proper message when it matters most. How would you respond to someone finding medical records in a dumpster outside your hospital? Would that response come from the top or from legal? How would you deliver the message — on your website or in front of a microphone? What would influence these decisions?
3. Stay informed about social platforms and sponsored/paid communication options.
You may be very well-versed in how to use Google+ or WordPress, because you use it in your everyday digital strategy, but what happens if negative chatter shows up on Facebook or Twitter? If you don’t know how Facebook Ads work or that Promoted Tweets ability even exists, how are you going to utilize them in a crisis?
4. Set up notifications to monitor what is being said about you and your leaders/physicians
There are a number of monitoring tools; some are free while others are not (Google Alerts, Mentions, HootSuite tools, etc.) My suggestions is not to rely entirely on someone else to monitor your reputation. They don’t have skin in the game like you do.
5. Practice response with your crisis team.
You don’t have to do a full-out drill, but periodically run through what should happen during a crisis so your team doesn’t panic looking for a checklist when it’s not a drill. Spend time reviewing:
Who makes the calls?
Who makes up the crisis response team?
What happens first?
What should take place (chain of command, time tables, verbage, monitoring, assessment, etc.)?
What are your goals and priorities (to protect the brand, to minimize legal risk, etc.)?
6. Keep the phone operator in the know.
Communicate who calls should be directed to, in case of a potential crisis.
Plan How to Respond During the Public Relations Crisis
Once a crisis hits, you don’t have the luxury of time. Having a well-thought-out plan is important, even if it’s a starting point. Your plan should include a list of steps with discussion topics, cautions, and things to consider. For example:
1. Assess the situation (what’s the real crisis?).
Assess the threat and identify what is the actual crisis or risk. Separating ego from brand damage will prevent you from spending time responding to something that isn’t really a crisis, or worse … creating a crisis that didn’t exist.
2. Anticipate what could happen next.
Play “what if” so you can anticipate just how bad it could get. Did Emory University Hospital anticipate public panic? Probably, but did John Hopkins consider the physician’s suicide as a possible domino? Some things you just can’t predict, but being prepared where you can will pay off.
3. Respond where and when you will be effective.
Don’t spread the “virus” by infecting new mediums not yet infected. Address the crisis where it is happening and consider where that audience might turn next. There are times when silence is smart, as was the case with Boston Childrens Hospital during the anonymous threat.
4. Communicate resolution.
When you have the crisis under control, let the public know. Use promotional tools (like Facebook Ads, Promotional Tweets, and Google AdWords) to let the public know it’s resolved in a very visible way. Don’t forget to include link with more information. If your crisis birthed a hashtag along the way, include it so your posts show up along side the negative ones.
Crisis planning is not only smart, it’s empowering. Having a plan like the one above puts you in the driver’s seat and it also positions your marketing team to participate in social media with confidence.