Ebola: How hospitals are balancing internal and external comms

Communications pros tell PRWeek how they are coordinating stakeholder and public-facing communications amid growing concerns about Ebola in the US.

Nina Pham, the first nurse infected with Ebola while treating patient Thomas Duncan at a Dallas Hospital, released a video thanking her colleagues on the medical center’s staff
Nina Pham, the first nurse infected with Ebola while treating patient Thomas Duncan at a Dallas Hospital, released a video thanking her colleagues on the medical center’s staff

When Texas health official Dr. Daniel Varga wrote to the House Energy and Commerce Committee acknowledging mistakes made by Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, he headlined one part of the letter "communication is critical but it is no substitute for training."

While healthcare-focused communications professionals are not downplaying the importance of medical training, they say a well-organized crisis communications plan is also critical to containing Ebola in the US.

As of Friday morning, two nurses diagnosed with the disease have been transferred out of the hospital where they cared for a now-deceased patient with the virus. Both the Dallas medical facility and the federal government are facing scrutiny for their handling of the case as hospitals across the country brace for a patient with the virus to come through their doors. With this in mind, communicating with internal audiences is paramount, but public communications is also important, say communications experts.

"Just like any kind of communications effort, information – and lots of it – is key," notes Wendy Lund, CEO of GCI Health, emphasizing that they should assure staff that "We’re going to do everything in our power to protect you." Hospital leaders may also want to acknowledge that some employees are putting themselves at risk, she adds.

Melanie Christian, an account director at Saxum and a veteran of the Tulsa Health Department in Oklahoma, believes hospitals should prioritize internal audiences in this type of situation, including staffers, their families, board members, and investors. They should embrace an "honest, ongoing dialogue" with a long-running plan in case the Ebola crisis does not dissipate quickly and emphasize "the need for business continuity planning," she adds.

"One of the few positives that came out of the H1N1 influenza pandemic is that there was a lot of dialogue from the private sector," says Christian. "It’s important to try to have control of the communications from the outset so that employees are reassured hospitals are committed to ongoing communications with them and so they know there’s a reliable source internally."

"It does eradicate uncertainty if they know they are a priority audience and have the latest information coming from their employer," she emphasizes.

In terms of channels, hospitals can effectively disseminate messages through established methods such as email, text messages, video conferences, or webinars.

Although there are no Ebola cases at any Mayo Clinic locations, the healthcare system is proactively communicating with staff about the crisis. Departments, divisions, and specialty areas have protocols in place, says Bob Nellis, public affairs senior specialist at the network.

In terms of external communications, the organization has an active online presence about Ebola – Nellis says it is posting information on its consumer health pages – and its social media page is ensuring the right people are answering questions. Spokespeople across the health system are also fielding wide-ranging queries.

Nellis explains that the Mayo Clinic has been preparing for a potential Ebola case since this summer "at various levels."

"There are teams of teams," he adds, noting that the facility is in regular contact with the CDC.

Lund adds that medical centers need to create avenues to answer the public’s questions, but in a manageable way.

"There needs to be valid, credible avenues where people can ask questions of physicians, such as hotlines or online chats," she explains, but "in a controlled setting."

"You don’t want 50 hotlines popping up," says Lund, adding that during the AIDS crisis more than two decades ago, people were scared by misinformation, and a big challenge was to communicate with large groups of people.

New York-based Mount Sinai Health System is communicating all of its operational work to employees via email and the emergency management section of its website. In terms of talking to external audiences, The New York Times, CNBC, and other outlets have interviewed executives from the hospital system. Its social media and digital teams have also worked to disseminate information via a range of platforms.

"Mount Sinai’s PR office also works closely with government affairs and community affairs teams to ensure it has the latest information concerning [Ebola]," said Leonard Achan, CCO for the network, via email. "In turn, the team shares this information with community groups and elected officials."

Communicating from the epicenter
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas has been ground zero for Ebola in the US. Liberian national Thomas Duncan died at the medical center last Wednesday after coming to the US from the West African country. Nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, both of whom attended to Duncan, have since contracted the virus.

The hospital has become a target of groups such as National Nurses United, which has claimed the medical center did not adequately train or protect its medical professionals.

Last Friday, the hospital hired Burson-Marsteller for communications support. The WPP agency declined to comment on its specific work for Texas Health Presbyterian or its communications strategy. However, in recent days, the hospital has proactively pitched the press and the public with its message, using social media to help it do so.

Texas Health Presbyterian has regularly released statements about Pham’s condition and her move to a facility in Bethesda, Maryland. On Thursday, it pushed back against the nurses group and defended its policies and training.

The hospital has also employed video as a key tactic, distributing footage of Pham – seemingly in good spirits in her hospital bed – chatting with doctors, and another of other staffers explaining that they feel safe at the facility.

Wanting more from the federal government
Through Friday morning, CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden had been the federal government’s point person in communicating about the disease, holding press conferences nearly daily. However, Frieden was skewered by lawmakers on Thursday on Capitol Hill, and some have called for his resignation and the ceasing of all flights to Ebola-afflicted areas of West Africa.

On Friday morning, it was widely reported that President Barack Obama will name Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, as the government’s point person for Ebola response. Some immediately questioned the pick, given Klain’s lack of medical experience.

The public’s concern over Ebola feels like a health crisis of the past, such as Anthrax scares in New York City a decade ago or even the AIDS epidemic, both of which caused many people to become immediately frightened, recalls GCI Health’s Lund. She believes the federal government should do more to lead on the communications response.

"There’s no cohesive communications plan coming from the government," she contends, noting that it should use a united front to close the "credibility gap" leading to confusion across the country.

Lund adds that if the government keeps comms "straightforward and understandable," medical centers "will be much more equipped to communicate with constituents and patients."

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