There's no substitute for doing your homework

We've all received a dreaded call from a reporter on an issue that impacts the organization.

We've all received a dreaded call from a reporter on an issue that impacts the organization, an individual, or a patient. They turn your day upside-down. Conflict of interest issues and patient safety issues are top of mind for reporters these days, and soon they will have access to much publicly available data about doctors' performance and patient issues within hospitals.

The most difficult calls for a PR pro are those you either don't know anything about or for which you are unprepared. Obviously, we work very diligently to be ready for any circumstance, but the reality is that situations sometimes arise that you simply could not have anticipated.

Often, reporters have information that's not always complete, may include heresy that is unconfirmed, and sometimes be just wrong. Other times, reporters have great details based on facts that they may not be willing to share with you. In any case, it's most important that you do your due diligence and get into research mode to get the most accurate information and prepare for your response. Sometimes that may mean being quite forthcoming and proactive in what you say and share. Transparency is the key to communications these days.

As a PR pro, you must become the expert on the issue. Determine what happened, what went wrong and why, what are you doing to fix it, and how to assure the public they can still trust you. It requires taking extra care and time to understand the issue and how each element is connected. You'll need to reach out to various internal areas, such as operations, finance, legal, clinical, and/or administrative departments connected to the issue.

Hospitals are complex organizations where information is not always known across departments. This makes your role as a communicator all the more critical in gathering information, as well as sorting through the details to best determine the most transparent and appropriate response and spokesperson.

A recent example truly highlighted this lesson for me. I received a call from a reporter about a small fire that occurred in one of our hospital's operating rooms. After looking into the issue, we learned there was actually a small group of fires that had occurred in our operating rooms over a two-year period. Although each was properly reported at the time, the leadership was not informed there had been more than one.

Over the next 24 hours, we needed to meet a requirement to fix the problem immediately. We gathered teams, developed internal communications, removed and replaced the substance used in the operating rooms that was causing the problem, retrained thousands of employees to caution them and educate them about safety issues in the operating room, and developed our external communications. Our spokesperson was our CEO because, ultimately, he serves as our chief safety officer to the public.

We were extraordinarily quick to respond and resolve the problem, and highly transparent with the details of the issue. Communications, internally and externally, was the critical component to ensuring swift action with a very large group of employees and for maintaining public trust with our patients.

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

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in