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This Crisis Is Terrible: Poor Communications Makes It Worse

This Crisis Is Terrible: Poor Communications Makes It Worse April 6, 2020

Marketing, research and business development consultant in healthcare, human services and senior living.

Key Communication Skills in Times of Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic is terrible. Its impact on congregate care centers is especially difficult. Families accustomed to visiting their relatives and friends are unable to do so. Staff in these congregate care centers are legitimately concerned for their own well-being, watching the contagion infect and kill those whom they cared for week after week. Owners and managers of nursing homes, assisted living residences, group homes and other congregate care centers are genuinely trying to do the right thing, caring for their residents and staff, all the while wondering if their businesses will survive.

The public is struggling to understand while everyone is trying to cope with physical distancing. The mainstream media is struggling to keep up, and often inexperienced reporters are attempting to cover an enormous, tragic landscape.

During this time of crisis, owners, operators and managers of congregate care centers can either make the situation worse by what they say, or do not say to the media, their staff and the families, or they can manage these critical communications.

The Boston Globe recently ran two stories on the same day illustrating this point. One story featured Massachusetts group homes, sympathetically focusing on how the staff, managers and families were “struggling for normalcy” and coping with the social impacts of physical distancing.

The story was very positive overall, portraying the centers as compassionate and helping families to bridge the physical distance with communications tools and information.

In contrast, the second story, referring to nursing homes, described how “Residents and family angry and helpless as coronavirus overwhelms nursing homes”.

The story portrayed, in an unflattering way, how the attempted collaboration between Gov. Baker and nursing home operators had gone wrong. The story buried the creative and aggressive efforts taken by the governor and private sector long term care owners to address a bona fide need, while carefully managing the needs of existing patients and residents. The story featured the lack of coronavirus testing, the deaths and unflattering innuendo from staff and family members.

What is the difference between these two stories? The difference is how the actors in their respective sectors- group homes versus nursing homes – managed the messages.

In the story about group homes, a leader in the sector was quoted about how hard everyone is striving to address the difficult circumstances. In the story about long-term care, the CEO of one of the companies declined comment, while the other talked about having maxed out his personal credit cards to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for the staff. The content about group homes featured the creative efforts made by staff and families to breach the physical distancing with social communications tools such as video chats. No such “human interest” angles appeared in the story about nursing homes. And yet, it is certain that such efforts are occurring in nursing homes, and all congregate care settings. The reporter covering the nursing home story obtained anonymous quotes from staff talking about their concerns. In contrast, the quotes from group home staff were hopeful and constructive.

If you put these two stories side-by-side, the impacts are strikingly different, and the difference is not the facts on the ground, but rather how the spokespersons, the leaders, managed communications with the media.

Effective communication is essential during a time of crisis to manage the situation by accurately representing the efforts taken while protecting the reputation of the organization and its staff. The principles are simple, and can be applied in any environment:

  • Show up. The expression in public relations discipline is, “Get in front”. That means making one authoritative person available for comments and a point of contact. In this environment, the spokesperson should be someone in top leadership.
  • Remember who you are talking to. The audiences include the media, the families and the staff. People are smart and can sense a lie or equivocation. The messages might be slightly different for each audience, but the methods are exactly the same.
  • Tell the truth. If you do not know something, admit you it. The truth is going to come out eventually. It is far better if everyone hears it from the authoritative person. This approach builds trust in you and your brand.
  • Script the message. Do not wait until you are talking to the reporter to think about what you are going to say. And prepare what you are going to say at the staff meeting. These messages are important and deserve careful scripting. Start with what your mission and vision is, describe the problem, and repeat your mission and vision. For example:
    • MISSION – Our first priority at [NAME] is the health and well-being of our residents and staff, who are the front line in this crisis
    • FACTS – There have been XX number of confirmed infections; we are doing A, B and C
    • ACTION – We have never seen this type of challenge before, but we have a plan in place, we are in full compliance, and have been cooperating with…
    • MISSION – With your support, we can fulfill our mission to the health and well-being of those we serve, and the caregivers who are so bravely facing this crisis on their behalf.
  • Tell everyone what you are going to do, then do it. And if you are not yet sure about what will be done, tell everyone how you plan to get to that point, when, and then get back to them when you do.
  • When the crisis has passed (and it will pass) leaderships’ responsibility is to constructively review with each of its audiences what it did well, and what it could have done better.

Congregate care managers, as well as hospital managers, are not usually trained in crisis communications, yet these skills are desperately needed. The current coronavirus pandemic should make clear that managers in nursing homes, assisted living residences, senior centers independent living and other congregate care centers must develop plans for, and be trained in crisis communications.

For immediate assistance and guidance in creating and delivering key messages in the time of crisis, Stackpole & Associates is offering this webinar series.

The first webinar on April 15th – Long Term Care: Crisis Communications –focused on how nursing homes and congregate-care center managers can best handle both external & internal communications in this crisis.

In this second webinar, on May 20th, Irving Stackpole will talk about – Long Term Care After COVID-19: The Road Ahead.  The topics will discuss the likely recovery of, and the future for long-term congregate care in the post-COVID-19 period.

Register today

Marketing, research and business development consultant in healthcare, human services and senior living.

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