Lessons from the Trenches: Communicating to the Concerned

by Keena Bean

June 8, 2015

There’s nothing quite like a health care crisis to catch the attention of the media, and the general public. Health care organizations receive much more scrutiny in a crisis than your average company, and rightly so. Unlike a labor dispute at McDonalds or improperly used funds within a nonprofit, health care crises can literally be matters of life and death for patients and the public.

In responding to these crises, health care organizations need to first recognize that their constituents aren’t just angry, they’re concerned.

One of our specialties at Firmani + Associates is crisis communications, and with multiple regional health care providers as clients, we know very well the fear that can quickly crop up within a community.

So what do we do to ease people’s fears and guide our client through the negative attention?

Anticipate the news hook and get ahead of it. Take charge of the story and tell it in your own words. Even if you’ve got nothing but bad news, it will still sound better coming from you than the nightly news anchor. Be transparent with what you know at every step of the way – it will take the sting out of unexpected negative coverage and show the public that you’re not hiding from hard facts. It may feel like you’re adding unnecessary fuel to the fire, but it’s better to contain it yourself than let it get out of control by someone else’s hands.

Know your audiences and speak directly to them. You are going to have multiple audiences in any given health care crisis scenario. Staff need to know what to say to concerned patients, vendors and stakeholders need to know that this won’t hurt their business, and most importantly, patients and families need to know that they’re safe.

Address each audience individually, and do it in their language. Communicating directly to patients and families doesn’t serve its purpose if they can’t read through the industry jargon. These communications need to exude endless compassion, empathy and honesty. And include an offline contact where they can reach out to you directly for more information. In addition to building more trust between you and the patients and families, it lessens the chance that they will take their concerns directly to the media or message boards.

Get your priorities straight. A patient or family member should never learn about a problem with their health care provider through the news. As health care communicators, we need to remember who our most important audience is and temper our urgency in responding to media with patience and respect for those we serve.

Health care providers are held to a much higher standard than those in other industries because we put our trust in them when we are at our most vulnerable. Showing a little transparency, honesty and vulnerability as the provider can go a long way in return.

Keena Bean
About Keena Bean
Keena Bean is an Account Executive at Firmani + Associates.
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Lessons from the Trenches: Communicating to the Concerned