Recognizing it faced more than a disaster, the internal PR team adjusted its tactics for the lone survivor
It was a freezing January night as people all over the country sat glued to their TVs, hoping to hear of signs of life from 13 miners trapped underground after a deadly explosion in the Sago Mine.
Bill Case was one of those people.
The director of public information for West Virginia University Hospitals knew that, should any miners be found alive, his hospital was the closest and most likely to be managing the crisis.
A disaster plan was put in place, and the hospital staff was prepared. News broke.
First came the jubilation, that 12 miners lived. Tragically, families were distraught to learn three hours later that the information was wrong and 12 had actually perished. The lone survivor, Randal "Randy" McCloy, was headed to the university's hospital.
McCloy arrived in critical condition, and no one knew if he would survive.
The hospital's communications staff knew they were in for a media crush, but even they couldn't anticipate the level of intensity.
"Amy [Johns, manager of broadcast media] and I have both been working here for two years, and it far surpassed anything we've seen for our hospital or our town," Case says.
Camera crews and satellite trucks arrived en masse, with no place to stage. Right in the hospital lobby, print reporters jockeyed for position against producers for celebrity news anchors. Everyone wanted exclusives; cell phones were ringing like crazy with requests. There was network infighting. Reporters were calling and bothering McCloy's relatives and searching for any unique angle.
And besides being just a mass of journalists, it seemed nobody was in a good mood.
"It was so rocky the first day," Case says. "A number of the media came directly from the mine; they came from cold, muddy conditions. They were grumpy. We had a lot of people who invested a lot of time, with nothing to report. They had no sleep, no showers, and no good news."
It could have been chaotic, but the hospital staff devised a plan and got the situation under control quickly. A great part of that success is due to the fact that the 12-person communications team has four former journalists, who know the game.
The first assessment was that the situation needed a different kind of media plan.
"We had a disaster plan, but as we put it into action, we realized this was a celebrity patient story," Case recalls. "The whole world was interested in him and his care."
The closest thing the 500-bed hospital had before to a celebrity case was when Hillary Clinton paid a visit - not as a patient - and stayed for just four hours, says Johns. The hospital had prepared for two months.
So as the McCloy story unfolded, the team regrouped. After accidentally aggravating one producer by providing an exclusive to another, they set firm guidelines.
"We can't play favorites," Johns says she told the media.
The staff responded quickly to both national and local journalists and gave them a schedule of briefings and releases.
Online was a big component of media management. The team made press conferences available on its Web site, in case reporters missed them. The Web site had a feature that allowed well-wishers to send McCloy greetings. The team also set up a nonprofit foundation to accept donations for McCloy and the families of the deceased miners.
Even WVU's athletic department made its football press box available to the media, so journalists could watch the TV monitors and conduct live feeds from there.
Case says the staff divided the labor among McCloy's family, national media, and local media. It helped the family find a spokeswoman, Aly Goodwin Gregg, who had become familiar with national media as the spokeswoman for Jessica Lynch.
"My job was to help them figure out the news of the day," Case says. "I helped the doctors decide what words to use to describe his condition every day. We did not want to give false hope. Randy came back to consciousness very slowly."
It would prove to be a long journey during McCloy's stay. At first he was in a coma, yet reporters were under pressure to advance the story daily.
"They wanted Randy to get up, walk, and talk," Johns says.
Eventually McCloy did recover, and on March 31, the hospital held a press conference to announce that he was being released from rehab to home.
Paul Moniz, VP at Widmeyer Communications, has worked with the university's neurology department for some time, and provided some tips and pointers to the hospital staff when McCloy arrived.
Moniz encouraged the hospital to get the communications story out now, nine months later, because it can teach other internal PR departments how to manage a crisis.
"We felt they really deserved credit for how they handled it," he says. "They are really in touch with the doctors. When this crisis happened, the doctors trusted them."
AT A GLANCE
Community and tertiary hospitals in northern West Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania
Key trade titles: Modern Healthcare
Marketing and comms team:
Gary Murdock, VP of planning, marketing, and communications
Bill Case, public information director
Jay Coughlin, comms director
Amy Johns, broadcast media manager
Heidi Specht, visual design manager
Marketing services agencies:
Widmeyer Communications, New York