High Stakes

Crisis Prep: Two Tests to Determine Trust

When a crisis hits, it’s too late to build trust.

All of us in the discipline of communications – healthcare or otherwise – dread the crises that will inevitably occur.  Yet failing to plan for both small and large-scale events risks consequences including long-lasting damage to organizational reputation.

Most crisis communications plans include a standard set of preliminary steps:

  • Evaluate and discuss potential risks and vulnerabilities;
  • Identify and train spokespersons; and
  • Create lists of stakeholders for prioritized communications.

For healthcare communicators, the foundation of crisis communications planning is in establishing a relationship of trust with leadership and staff that allows for facile and rapid communications when a crisis occurs.  In short, a crisis is not the time to demonstrate to corporate counsel or risk managers that you can be trusted with the details.

There are two sure ways to test whether the requisite level of trust exists:

  • Does a senior communications executive professional sit on the executive team of the organization?
  • Is the communications lead among the first to be notified or called in when problems arise and everyone’s hair is on fire?

Both of these indicate the regard in which the CEO and other “Os“ hold the communications function.

In more than three decades of healthcare communications work, I’ve experienced my fair share of crises of varying magnitudes and sources.  Some have been handled relatively easily. Others have lasted months, absorbing every bit of time available.  So, from that perspective, here are some recommendations for creating a “preamble” to your crisis communications plan.

To CEOs everywhere, place your communications lead on your executive team and make sure she or he has a direct reporting relationship to you.  While important for effective, ongoing communications function, it is vital in times of crisis.  There should be no filters between executive leadership and the communications effort.  There’s no time for it.

To communications pros, remember that crises come from all areas and in all forms – clinical, financial, patient/family experience, environmental.  Take time to develop relationships with the executives from every discipline and learn about their roles, their priorities and their language.  A CFO who can clearly explain healthcare finances is an invaluable resource.  A mutually respectful relationship with the corporate counsel is gold.

Remember the adage “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  After establishing these relationships, take time to discuss with leaders the elements of the crisis communications plan, news cycles, and how and why stakeholder groups were chosen.  You need freely flowing information, not questions about process when you’re in the middle of a crisis.

Crises are not fun.  They can, though, be rewarding and, when handled well, serve to bolster the trust and relationships among leadership and staff.

Note: Author Rebecca Climer has been named Of Counsel with Jarrard Inc., it was announced today.


Have Our Thinking Delivered to Your Inbox »