Managing a PR crisis: 8 pro tips for ASCs

There is no such thing as bad publicity, American showman and circus owner P. T. Barnum once quipped. In some industries, this saying may hold true; but in healthcare, it's certainly not the case.

Just ask New York-based Yorkville Endoscopy, the site of the botched Joan Rivers procedure. On Aug. 28, the comedian was undergoing a routine endoscopic procedure at the ambulatory surgery center when she stopped breathing. She was transferred to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where she died on Sept. 4.

While the details of what went wrong in the Yorkville operating room are still emerging, this incident is a strong reminder that things can go wrong at any time during care delivery. ASCs typically have low infection rates and high patient satisfaction, but that does not mean they are immune to crises. And when calamity strikes, it's bound to draw public attention.  SashaBoghosian Headshot

"ASCs play a prominent role in any community they serve because of the number of lives they touch," says Sasha Boghosian, senior vice president at ReviveHealth, a strategic communications firm focused on the healthcare industry. "Their high visibility makes it unlikely that a disaster or crisis will go unnoticed."

Mistakes happen, and it's important that ASCs assess internal processes to ensure they do not happen again. However, it's also equally important that surgery center work toward winning back the public's trust. While every negative situation or crisis is unique, there are certain basic strategies ASCs can follow when managing public relations during a difficult period. Here are eight tips:

Rebecca Kirkham 11. Be transparent. "Generally speaking, [after a crisis] ASCs should aim to be as responsive and transparent as possible while minimizing damage to their brand and protecting the reputations of their physician partners," says Rebecca Kirkham senior vice president, Lovell Communications, a public relations, crisis communications and marketing communications firm.

However, it's also important to remember that there are a number of factors, such as patient privacy or legal concerns, which could prevent the ASC from sharing information freely. Ms. Kirkham suggests that ASCs start by gathering all of the facts and then use that information in an appropriate manner in response to stakeholders, including the media, patients, employees and physicians.

"In some cases, the ASC may choose not to proactively share information with the media or general public but it's still important to be prepared to respond to inquiries. 'No comment' is never a good answer," she says.

Also, it is key that communication after a crisis comes from the most appropriate representative of the facility, says Mr. Boghosian. In many cases, disasters require communication from top leadership to show that an organization is taking the matter seriously.  

"Avoidance is not a winning tactic," he adds. "It's vital to communicate fully and transparently, weaving the organization's strongest message into the narrative."

2. Don't communicate in "drips." This is a crucial mistake that ASCs make. According to Mr. Boghosian, many facilities tend to communicate in a series of "drips," where they say just what they need to say at the moment, only to have to explain more a few days later when the story grows.

"This approach never works," he says. "It's crucial to tell a full, honest story at the start and press the 'reset' button, allowing an organization to transition the crisis into the past tense."

3. Avoid the temptation to be silent. Silence keeps the negative story alive, says Ms. Kirkham. It's important to reach out to concerned stakeholders to address their concerns, particularly ASC staff members and physicians. They need to hear from the administration directly and know they are handling the situation appropriately.

4. Apologize publicly. Expressing emotion and acknowledging the crisis is an important step in the process of winning back the public's trust. This is especially true if the crisis involves an error that resulted in patient harm, such as a data breach, a quality issue or even a patient death.

"Remember to be human. Express emotion, apologize or accept responsibility as appropriate, and describe what will be done to prevent similar events in the future," Ms. Kirkham says.

5. Engage outside support. Providers at ASCs are in a unique position to help the facility engage outside support after a disaster has occurred, says Mr. Boghosian. Healthcare providers receive respect and admiration in the communities they serve for the lives they saved or improved. Leverage this existing network of supporters during a crisis.

"Nothing goes farther in its impact during a crisis than someone outside of an organization under siege standing up and saying publicly, 'they have my full support,'" says Mr. Boghosian.  

6. Cooperate with the media. "Organizations that find themselves in the media spotlight often adopt a bunker mentality and pull back from engaging with media in hopes the story will just go away," says Ms. Kirkham. "Nine times out of 10, it won't. So it's important to be responsive even if you aren't able to provide all of the information being requested."

Ultimately, reporters will still do their jobs, and refusing to return phone calls and running away from the camera will not discourage them from pursuing the story. Make an effort to understand information reporters are seeking but don't feel pressured to provide an answer on the spot.

"It's perfectly acceptable to gather facts and get back to the reporter at a later time, being mindful of deadlines," she says.

7. Establish a staff policy for handling media inquires. A media policy will help staff know how to respond and where to direct questions.

"These individuals can be a strong voice for a center in crisis if you equip them with the right information," she says. "While they should never speak to media without proper authorization, it's often helpful to provide them with talking points or Q&A responses that they can use in fielding questions from concerned patients or friends and family."

It is also important that staff members are trained to not discuss or speculate about the issue around patients or in public. "Also, they should never discuss it on social media, even if no protected health information is disclosed," says Ms. Kirkham.

8. Include an education component when communicating with media. "Healthcare is complex by nature," says Mr. Boghosian. "Organizations shouldn't assume that a reporter has a solid understanding of the issues or can fill in the details."

Adding an educational element to media communications can help reporters understand the difficulties and nuances surrounding the crisis. They then have the resources they need to put a story in context, according to Mr. Boghosian.

"Without it, an organization cannot generate empathy for the situation it faces, and empathy is a key ingredient for a turnaround," he says.

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