Prepare for a crisis before it happens

I was saddened to see that the top three news stories were a helicopter crash, an abducted baby, and an employee shooting at a company meeting.

On a recent lengthy plane ride, I found myself watching the news for a short while. Within a matter of about five minutes, I was saddened to see that the top three stories were a helicopter crash, an abducted baby, and an employee shooting at a company meeting. All tragic events, but I wanted to know instantly that the crash had survivors, the baby was found unharmed, and no one was hurt at the shooting.

Soon after, I found myself transitioning to what we do in PR – thinking about how critical it is, in such situations, to communicate quickly, accurately, and constantly when the public expects and can receive information immediately.

Although you have to be extremely careful that information is accurate, stories that move with such speed require you to be on top of the facts and to use your best judgment to simultaneously consider the impact of your communications on all audiences. Often times, communications also requires working closely with police, fire, and law enforcement to be sure what is released is appropriate. Crises that involve public health or safety, family concern and privacy, and overall fear can merge together quickly. How you handle communications can help or hurt your organization quite substantially.

At Cleveland Clinic, I've certainly faced some examples of such crises. I recall the multi-state power outage that affected much of the northeastern US nearly ten years ago. It caused panic and confusion among the public, employees, and patients at our nearly 3,000-bed hospital system in Ohio. We've also had three shootings at our community hospitals during a short period of time that caused concern about the safety of two of our hospitals for the public at large. We've also experienced a large bolt of lightening striking a nearby building that caused a multi-floor patient evacuation and several gas leaks caused by traffic accidents and water main breaks.

After a while, you begin to expect some kind of issue to occur when you travel to work most mornings. I encourage you to not only revisit your communications strategy on these kinds of unexpected crises, but also to practice your response plan with either hypothetical situations or from real circumstances. Communications needs to be more sophisticated than ever and your staff needs to be trained to handle and work as a team.

In our organization, we moved from one “public information officer” years ago to an elaborate crisis communication team and structure where each member has a very specific role and set of responsibilities. We also work closely with a broader team within the organization to ensure accuracy of the facts as they develop.

These days, the media and public expect almost minute-by-minute updates that help them feel that the situation is under control, what to expect next, and that all will be back to normal. You need a sharp team of communications experts who are ready to go and know their roles. Providing the right information at the right time to the right audience – quickly – is more important than ever with the way information spreads so fast and many times inaccurately. More than ever, PR impacts the way your company is perceived during a crisis, so be prepared before it happens.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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