Like any other industry, health care organizations need to be ready for a crisis to happen at any moment. Its preparedness is particularly important because health care was built to serve people, and the way it responds when an incident happens reflects its ability to carry out its mission. When people are directly affected in a crisis, health care needs to carefully balance empathy with legal strategy.
When a human life (or lives) are affected, the organization needs to begin with an apology. It’s common for executives to be skeptical, and worry, believing that an apology equates guilt. In today’s world, saying “I’m sorry” is expected and being human. When your organization has a compassionate response to a crisis, it directly mirrors its character.
Apologizing the Right Way
As soon as a crisis happens, the first step is simple. Express true emotions in the situation — compassion, sadness, regret. Seeing a face to your organization and being there demonstrates your organization’s commitment to people. After a private apology has occurred, an external, public apology is also necessary. And while it doesn’t admit guilt or provide details, it does demonstrate empathy for the people affected.
While most health care organizations realize that at the beginning of a crisis an apology is needed, sometimes they avoid it because they think it will strengthen the legal strategy. This makes the organization look defensive and guilty. Instead, our philosophy is “walk toward the crisis.” When you are lawyering up, you are not acknowledging the issue.
When publicly commenting to media on a crisis, a common mistake is responding with “no comment,” believing it’s a strong legal move. By saying nothing, you’ll often fuel an internal rumor mill and public speculation. The public will infer that “no comment” means guilty.
You don’t have to comment elaborately on a crisis, but you should communicate why you are not communicating in detail. We often provide our clients the option of a comment such as, “out of the respect of the legal process, we wouldn’t want to do anything or say anything to interfere.” This provides an explanation of why you are providing few details, and protects the legal strategy (when necessary).
Once the crisis happens, speed and accuracy are important components to your response strategy. The sooner an organization acknowledges a problem, the more likely you have the power to impact public perception, but the facts must be right. Speed to respond could also positively impact the length or severity of potential litigation.
Partnering with the Legal Team
Over the last decade, we’ve seen that during crises, health care executives listen to counsel from their entire executive teams — not only their General Counsel — including communications, finance, operations and other departments. They’ve come to realize that the reputation of their organization can be impacted in a myriad of ways, not only during litigation.
A winning communications strategy is now the product of a strong partnership with the legal team. They have to be in sync. If the legal team gets too focused on potential litigation, they put the company at risk. On the flip side, if communications says too much about the details of an incident, they could put the legal strategy in jeopardy. Communications professionals need to provide perspective to both the legal team and C-suite about reputational risks. The bottom line is that if you don’t communicate effectively during a crisis, it could hurt people.
Ensure that during a crisis, your legal team reviews and approves all comments — including apologies. Once a strategy and comments are ready to present to your executive team, present multiple options and possible outcomes. Explaining how an apology will positively impact long-term reputation can help gain consensus from your entire crisis leadership team.
When in the thick of a health care crisis, remember that people remember how they were treated. No one expects an organization to be perfect. Most importantly, your organization’s long-term reputation becomes that they cared about people, in all circumstances.
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