Those of us who work in health care public relations, especially in the provider sector, are drawn to news of crises like moths to the proverbial flame – because crises draw upon all of our skills to manage effectively so that we avoid long-term damage to organizational reputation. As we watch headlines about “OPC” (Other People’s Crises) much like drivers slow down while driving to gaze at a traffic accident on the other side of the road, it’s easy to think “glad that’s not us.”

Our next thought should be, “But are we prepared? What if that happened at our hospital or system?”

There’s been a lot to think about this spring and summer. Here are five examples of reputation-damaging situations that should make us wonder, what would we do if…

  • The NY Times is given secretly recorded audiotapes of a group of our physicians, making extremely damaging comments about one of our leading programs;
  • One of our physicians is indicted, accused of fatally overdosing more than two dozen ICU patients;
  • CMS threatens to pull funding because of one or more from a laundry list of quality, governance, patient care issues (this headline has been seen more than once in the last five months);
  • Legionnaires’ disease breaks out in our new hospital with one fatality and sickening a number of patients;
  • Someone anonymously sent media medical records and legal settlement documents about the care of a major public figure who died in one of our facilities.

These situations differ significantly from managing an external crisis that was caused by someone else – a mass shooting, a tornado or a fire. Then, the hospital is the hero – helping people that were injured by someone or something else.

In these real-life scenarios, which usually happens at major academic medical centers and facilities that are part of leading systems, the hospital is portrayed by media and perceived by consumers as at fault. 

So, instead of driving by the headlines and thinking, “Whew, not me” – we need to use each and every major OPC as the signal for a stop, drop and drill exercise led by public relations staff and outside counsel if feasible. Post-crisis isn’t good enough anymore – seeing how the other guys do it, right or wrong, makes a drill too easy. Literally as crises are occurring across the country, we must launch a crisis management scenario exercise, involving the CEO on down. If this were us, what would we be doing right now? Then as the situation progresses, we can benchmark, analyze and assess. Did we do things right? What would be the outcomes here? 

Crisis preparation is tough work, and tough to make happen. Lack of time is the usual barrier. So, in a quieter time, try to get some buy-in to the process, and a future commitment. Because when the crisis is yours, there are no do-overs OR time to think things through.

And the big P.S. Even if the crisis isn’t ours, there may be a broader impact on public opinion as a rash of crises make national headlines. In my email inbox last week was a note from a science writer colleague, questioning what was happening in hospitals and wondering aloud how safety standards have fallen short in recent years. That sentiment, from someone who works with leading physicians and understands the challenges of patient care and hospital management, caught me up short.

If consumers start thinking this happened there, could it happen at my hospital, we will have yet another reputation challenge to manage. Toxic environment alert for all of us: as we are doing research – especially focus groups – we need to start probing to see if consumers in our markets are hearing about and worrying about OPCs. 

Have you ever wondered whether your company or organization is prepared to manage a crisis situation? Take our Crisis IQ Quiz to find out.

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