2015-04-24 14:31:30 UTC

Managing the Media in a Crisis

May 8, 2015

Make sure your medical practice has a plan for dealing with a public relations crisis. This includes knowing how to deal with the media and how to respond on social media.

By Michelle Foster Earle, president of OmniSure Consulting Group

Though they are ready to take on the life and death challenges of their patients, many gastroenterologists and their practices are ill prepared to deal with a potential onslaught of media attention during or following a crisis.

Here are some of the potential crisis examples shared by consultants on OmniSure Risk Consulting Group’s Helpline team:

  • A surgery center discovers it has performed surgeries using contaminated equipment.
  • A patient who is dissatisfied with the outcome of a procedure posts derogatory statements on social media and online forums looking for others who are also unhappy with the practice.
  • A physician is accused of prescribing opioids irresponsibly after she learns of a patient’s overdose and death.
  • A practice manager learns that one of his physician assistants contacted and made sexual advances to a patient following the patient's discharge from the hospital.
  • A laptop with the personal information of more than 1,500 patients is stolen.

These types of events happen. And they can happen to you. A well-thought-out public relations and media management plan is the best way to minimize the damage. 

Start With Your Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response Plan

As with disaster planning, managing the media and community opinion are essential to the survival of a practice and its reputation. When compiling a disaster plan, incorporate public relations and media management (including social media) as part of the plan. When managed well, the media can become an asset instead of an adversary in a crisis.


The safety of patients is the primary concern of health-care professionals and you have most likely already designated roles in your preparedness plans. Be sure to add the role of media management as well. Train general staff members to refrain from speaking to reporters. When you meet with your team to designate duties, discuss plans and outline the tools necessary for disaster and crisis planning, and examine the following questions as well:

  • If an event or issue arises, what can be done to manage the possibility that patients or families will speak to the media, post information on Facebook, or start a conversation on Twitter?
  • Who is responsible for keeping the practice’s crisis team phone tree up to date? Would texting or using another means of mass communication be more efficient?
  • Who will be managing media communication? And who will be monitoring “mentions” or comments on various social media platforms?
  • What can your insurance broker’s clinical risk management team do to assist your practice? If your insurance broker has not arranged for access to a confidential risk management helpline as part of your insurance package, ask your broker to do so.  

Media Representatives

During a crisis, three essential groups will usually need a media representative or spokesman; it may not be the same person for all communications. Start with a call to your confidential risk management helpline for assistance and direction. 

Staff: During a crisis it is essential that staff react appropriately, continue to provide the essential patient care in a calm and professional manner, work together as a team and respond favorably to leadership. The staff spokesman must be someone who is trusted by staff to be supportive, strong and able to keep them focused. Staff must feel well equipped to handle the inquiries of those they are caring for.

Patients and Families: Patients and families will often hear about high-profile crisis events. It is always best to inform families before Facebook and Twitter users, or the traditional news media, report the crisis. The person responsible for informing families should be someone who can remain calm, confident and focused on solutions in the face of impending crisis reactions. This is typically someone who is respected by patients, families and others. Hearing about bad news from a trusted employee or leader of the practice is far better than hearing news from a stranger. If there’s no way to personally contact families before news gets out, use your website or social media to make an announcement, and direct people to the best source for ongoing information. 

Community: Information that is presented to the media and posted on social media sites has an impact that is long lasting and directly affects the reputation of the practice following a crisis. The media representatives must be articulate, able to handle their emotions and respond to rapid-fire questions. A spokesman is sometimes just as important as what the media reports regarding the crisis event. With the advent of the Internet, news stories can live on cyberspace for years. The media representative may need to keep a file of composed statements that can be read to new media or released in print to avoid unplanned, last minute crisis response. 

If multiple media representatives are designated, create a system that makes sure all communications are equal in content and message.

Dealing with Media
When the media first hears about a crisis, they seldom know the “slant” they will place on the story until after the first interview. It is the first impression that typically drives most media attention. The standard “no comment” may make matters worse and lead the media to draw conclusions that do more harm than good.

Prepare ahead of time with information that can easily be distributed to the media. Short, concise statements indicating that the situation is under control and that practice management is working to resolve relevant issues are adequate for providing information to the public. It is not always best to provide details regarding steps being taken or the outcome of governmental interventions. Prepare a brief history of the practice and include historical facts, achievements and notable awards. Note that the practice is always working on behalf of its patients, families and staff, and that it will continue to do so during any crisis.

Give staff a phrase to use if media should approach them for comments. Phrases such as “your questions can be answered by our media representative” will be easy for staff to remember and help protect them from a barrage of media follow ups.

Tips for the Media Representative
Have a prepared statement when meeting with the media. A prepared statement will satisfy the reporter's obligation. If you don’t have an answer to a direct question, state something such as “we are exploring that in our investigation and we have not reached a definitive conclusion.” Never offer speculation.  Inform reporters that you are only able to discuss known facts and that you cannot speculate.

Align the practice’s image with the public. State how the practice has provided service to the community for years and how it will continue to do so during the crisis. Convey the message that everything is under control, while also being truthful and factual. Remember, your words may appear in print and possibly in front-page headlines.

Be cooperative. Present the position of the practice and give the impression to the media you want the community to receive. Don’t allow yourself to be provoked into an emotionally reactive response and never speak “off the record.”

Social Media
The person managing social media for the practice needs to be part of the crisis communications team and have access to all of the same information. It’s important to monitor what’s being said on social media to get insight into what people are thinking and saying about your practice and the current situation.

Some general guidelines for using social media in a crisis situation:

  • If the crisis is widespread (such as a data breach), you may want to use your website or social media channels to acknowledge the event as soon as possible and let people know what information is available. Get guidance from your risk management helpline.
  • Reassure people that the practice is stable (if that’s true).
  • Let the public know what they need to do (if anything) and direct them to sources of information that are appropriate, such as an affiliated clinic for testing or the surgery center coordinating the investigation.
  • Take sensitive issues offline so that a potentially negative conversation is not happening online and in front of other users.
  • Get legal counsel on privacy laws. De-escalate situations by acknowledging a problem and then, if appropriate, explain that it cannot be discussed for legal reasons.
  • Periodically keep audiences up to date on the status and explain what steps have been taken to improve the situation.
  • Gradually return to posting routine information – this will signal to the public that things are back to normal.

Insurance companies have responded to the increased exposure of cyber intrusions. Reasonably priced coverage is available to help practices manage data breaches, patient notification and even restoration of the practice’s reputation. Check with your broker to see if this type of coverage is right for your practice.

Prospering After the Crisis
If a practice’s reputation is damaged, restoration will not happen overnight. The public will respond most favorably if they feel the practice was truthful and forthcoming. Colleagues and others are often willing to help after a crisis, so when it is appropriate, use the media to announce information and related stories that will capture the admiration of the community to re-establish your good standing. 

This article is brought to you by Contemporary Insurance Services Inc., the endorsed provider of malpractice insurance to AGA members. Contact CIS at www.cisinsurance.com or by calling 800-658-8943 to discuss your insurance needs.

About the Author: Michelle Foster Earle is the president of OmniSure Consulting Group, a risk management firm contracted by some of the nation’s leading medical professional liability insurance companies to help medical practices, hospitals, health-care facilities and providers of health care and social services nationwide reduce risk, improve performance and avoid lawsuits. Michelle has earned designations in health-care management, is a Licensed General Lines Property and Casualty Agent in Texas, and is an Associate in Risk Management.

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