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Crisis? What Crisis?

Is your healthcare company prepared to face an unanticipated, unwelcome challenge?
By Anne Robertson, Managing Director, Public Relations

One of your hospital’s surgeons performed heart bypass on a patient’s wrong artery. A fertility clinic mixed up specimens. Someone tampered with the packaging of your company’s product, lacing your harmless pain medication with potassium cyanide.

What’s a CEO to do?

Sooner or later, your business will almost certainly face a moment of crisis that threatens your reputation and bottom line. And for companies in the healthcare arena, a public relations crisis can be life threatening.


LAVIDGE | Healthcare worker


Most business leaders would prefer to focus on acquiring customers and growing revenue rather than planning for potential threats to their company’s reputation. But the three examples cited at the beginning of this article actually occurred—just ask comedian Dana Carvey, whose surgeon bypassed the wrong artery—and they will happen again. Reasonable crisis preparation can prove key to protecting your brand from derailment.

Savvy healthcare business leaders are aware of their organization’s vulnerabilities and can identify potential landmines. And while many executives can often predict inbound turbulence, they frequently ignore warning signs and hope to fly around it rather than straight into it. Indeed, most businesses have dusty, outdated crisis communications protocols that rarely sync with scenarios that suddenly erupt.

Company CEOs aren’t the only ones unprepared for an unanticipated PR crisis. Their marketing staffs are sometimes equally blind. According to a social media marketing study by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, fewer than 25 percent of healthcare and pharmaceutical company Chief Marketing Officers are planning to invest in crisis monitoring and communication.

Social Media Marketing Areas in Which US Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Marketing Executives Plan to Invest

Marketing Areas

Source: Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, “The CMO Survey: Results by Firm & Industry Characteristics” commissioned by American Marketing Association (AMA) and Deloitte, Feb 16, 2016)

Being unrehearsed for a potential crisis can have disastrous consequences. Healthcare organizations typically face acute crises related to patient or customer events that threaten their reputations as safe, caring providers. The resulting public relations calamity can also threaten their market position.

In our experience, a company’s internal communications professionals often require extra support to handle a thorny crisis. Many organizations are best served by tapping an outside public relations firm with relevant experience in the company’s industry. The typical business will need help to swiftly package and launch information that will reach targeted audiences while protecting its brand.

Attack of the Interloper

We saw this firsthand last year when a new client engaged us to help with a sudden and alarming situation that threatened their businesses.

Confidentiality necessitates that we protect the identity of this client, but they are the acknowledged leader in their specific healthcare sector. At the time, their hard-won industry prominence was threatened when a disruptive and innovative player entered the market. The new company’s press-savvy founder drew national headlines and became a media darling, attracting a bonanza of news coverage and lucrative corporate partners. The founder’s astonishing product and process claims could loot our soon-to-be client’s leading share of voice and market dominance.

The longtime industry leader began to swiftly create new products that responded to their new competitor. But time was of the essence, and our client needed a public relations partner to quickly deploy an aggressive campaign to spread the word and obtain news coverage, as well as provide support and media training.

Rather than badmouth the new company, our tactic was to launch an aggressive campaign to provide color and information about the traditional industry leader in a professional, informative and helpful manner. And it worked. In no time, our client’s message was disseminated, resulting in abundant positive coverage in the media. Even better, its new products began to find traction.

True to the unpredictability of crisis communications, the shiny new competitor imploded in fireworks of unsubstantiated claims and faulty product results. But there was no letting up on our client’s campaign; we kept our foot on the accelerator to demonstrate their product soundness and trustworthiness. The result? Our client seamlessly retained its healthcare sector dominance and emerged stronger than ever.

The Biased Reporter

Another new client faced an equally alarming situation: a local reporter who wore bias on his sleeve. He appeared to believe that our client was bungling, incompetent or perhaps harmful to the community. Our client needed help battling the negative stories frequently filed by the reporter.

Once engaged, our strategy was to ignore the reporter and not attempt to change his mind. Instead, we reached out to the other media in town—the newspapers, television stations and radio stations that, collectively, spoke louder and reached further than our client’s antagonistic reporter. This was a “drown him out” tactic that sought to significantly outweigh negative publicity with positive stories.

We were effective in generating an avalanche of positive press for our client. We also helped coach our client on how to respond better if and when their news nemesis contacted them again. Instead of the reporter being heard throughout the community, his is now just a single negative voice that can barely be heard above the loud and positive chorus of many more unbiased media outlets. Our work helped amplify our client’s position as a market innovator and leader that is staffed with compassionate professionals.

For these and other clients that engage us, crises become a catalyst for positive change.

Fire Drill

Maya Angelou once wrote, “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” That’s advice we give to all our clients. We encourage them to constantly anticipate threats and be prepared to address them. It’s similar to knowing how to respond to a fire even though you hope you’ll never face one.

We work closely with our clients to keep them prepared to quickly respond to a public image or perception crisis. Some of the elements of good crisis-communication preparation includes:

  • Develop a content toolkit that includes key corporate messages.

  • Conduct ongoing media training for company executives who might interface with the media.

  • Identify a core response team, including emergency contact information and responsibilities.

  • Create a protocol so everyone knows what to do and how it should be done.

  • Keep an always-updated list of media partners who can be immediately contacted under certain circumstances.

  • Determine which social media networks will be most useful for internal and external audience engagement.

  • Practice responding to a mock crisis on a regular basis.

  • Frequently review your crisis-communications plan with your public relations agency.
Anne Robertson
Managing Director, Public Relations
With 25+ years spent in publishing, journalism, corporate and agency Public Relations, Robertson manages the agency PR and Publicity departments. Since 2007, Anne has provided strategic and team management for a variety of PR clients in the healthcare, private investment, hospitality, education, consumer product, senior community and book publishing sectors. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from St. Lawrence University and a Master of Arts in journalism from NYU.

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