How to Navigate a Crisis with Clarity and Confidence

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Group of healthcare workers with digital tablet meeting in hospital boardroom. Medical staff during morning briefing.

Tips Healthcare Organizations Can Adopt for Success During Crises 

By Ayme Zemke

Crises cause uncertainty and anxiety for healthcare organizations and their patients, employees, partners and communities. A crisis can occur at a moment’s notice and how an organization responds can have a long-lasting impact on its trust and reputation. 

Effective communication is at the heart of a successful crisis response and can provide the clarity needed to minimize confusion, manage risk and maintain both operational continuity and stakeholder trust. Following are common crisis communication mistakes that healthcare organizations should take care to avoid.

Mistake #1: No crisis communication plan 

Healthcare organizations without a crisis communication plan are usually slower to respond, unsure what to say and unclear what role everyone plays. This lack of clarity results in time lost trying to create a plan versus actually responding. These missteps can damage stakeholder trust and loyalty and impact the business long-term. Effective crisis response plans:

  • align with the organization’s purpose and values, 
  • assign a dedicated response team with clear roles and responsibilities, 
  • identify the preferred communication channels for each stakeholder group (internal and external) and 
  • include prepared, templated materials that can be easily customized and distributed using these channels.

Organizations that anticipate issues and have a response plan can minimize risk and sustain trust for patients and employees.  

Mistake #2: Leaders aren’t crisis-ready

Strong leadership is always important, but especially in times of crisis. People expect a timely, transparent and genuine response from healthcare leaders. Stopping the spread of misinformation, both internally and externally, requires leaders to deliver clear, factual and straightforward messages. But facts alone are not enough. A leader’s response should be genuine and heartfelt. It should acknowledge the emotional toll a crisis can take on people and demonstrate empathy through words and action. Healthcare leaders must pay special attention to employees by communicating with them frequently and transparently

Avoid the crisis communication mistake of ill-prepared leaders by pairing leaders with communication experts who can coach them on how to respond clearly, confidently and empathetically. Healthcare organizations with trained crisis-ready leaders are more likely to emerge successfully from crises.

Mistake #3: Taking too long to respond 

Speed matters during a crisis. Healthcare organizations must respond quickly and with clear, factual information when a crisis strikes. Leaders who make the crisis communication mistake of taking too long to respond, whether it’s because they’re not sure what to say or want to avoid blame, will experience negative repercussions. Healthcare organizations that respond quickly, transparently and openly are more likely to sustain trust with stakeholders and effectively manage the crisis narrative. 

Healthcare organizations responding to crises should use a multi-channel approach to engage internal and external stakeholders. Social media can elevate the way your organization responds quickly. Forbes suggests a response in “about 15 minutes to address a crisis breaking on Twitter, 30 minutes on Facebook.” Institutions that respond in alignment with their values, demonstrate empathy, and communicate clearly and consistently from the start of a crisis will be best positioned to maintain business continuity and successfully recover.

Mistake #4: Not listening to external stakeholders

Healthcare organizations that create feedback loops and listen to external audiences can strengthen relationships. Institutions that don’t seek input from their customers, partners and communities might misjudge how people feel and communicate with them in ways that don’t resonate — or, worse, do harm. Insights learned from listening methods, like surveys, focus groups and social media channels, help organizations meet people where they are and show they care.

Listening is also important as the organization and market stabilize after the crisis. Healthcare organizations that take time to listen and learn how stakeholder expectations have changed because of the crisis can make informed decisions about strategic pivots.

Mistake #5: Forgetting about employees

Organizaions sometimes focus so much on their external crisis response that they unintentionally neglect employees. Employees feel the worry, uncertainty and stress created by a crisis along with stakeholders. They’re also essential to crisis recovery and deserve to be treated with care and respect. Healthcare organizations can support employees by frequently checking in with them, asking for their input and empowering them to help move the business forward. 

Leverage internal communication platforms and technology to inform and engage employees. 

Mistake #6: Continuing business-as-usual with marketing messages

Crises can quickly and dramatically shift the business environment in which an organization operates. A marketing campaign can become irrelevant, or worse, be perceived as tone-deaf or opportunistic in a moment’s notice. Marketing and communication teams must act quickly once a crisis hits to review and adjust external marketing messages and scheduled communications. Healthcare organizations may need to cancel entire marketing campaigns depending on the severity of the crisis.

Healthcare organizations that avoid these crisis communication mistakes can more successfully navigate a crisis, sustain their brand reputation and build stakeholder trust and loyalty. Organizations can use the power of communication to maintain business continuity by following this crisis management roadmap. The phases ready, respond, recover and restore are guidelines on the stages of responding to a crisis. Learn about each phase: 

  • Ready: Identify likely crises and prepare a plan for managing them
  • Respond: Activate the crisis management plan with timely, consistent and authentic communication
  • Recover: Take time to understand how expectations have changed and what is needed to move forward
  • Restore: Move the business forward with confidence for sustained growth

Some organizations even emerge from a crisis stronger than before, with a better understanding of who they are, whom they serve and their unique value. 

Ayme Zemke leads client service at Beehive Strategic Communication and is a certified crisis communication leader. She has more than 20 years of strategic communication experience and has helped many organizations prepare for and respond to crisis situations in a way that sustains trust and supports business continuity. Ayme’s ability to understand people’s needs and make meaningful connections helps her move businesses forward with purpose. She often speaks and writes about crisis communication, serves on the Minnesota PRSA Board of Directors and has been recognized by PR News as a Top PR Professional and PR Team Leader.

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