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The Big Story: At Boston hospitals, controversy erupts over what should be said about the Israel-Hamas war

“Hospital executives are facing harsh criticism from within their own medical staff for public statements [related to the conflict], either for not going far enough to condemn the atrocities committed by Hamas militants, or for failing to acknowledge the soaring civilian death toll in Gaza. Much of the criticism has come from workers with family ties to Israel or the Palestinians, who say their institutions failed to properly acknowledge the scale of human suffering or the underlying causes that led to the war.”

Communications on Tenterhooks

By David Jarrard
4-minute read

What do you say now, if anything at all?

Making a statement on the horrific, violent conflict in the Middle East is teeming with challenges. The events are half a world away, but the passions are running high next door. World news is local news. Maybe it’s spilling into your ER, or into your town hall meeting, or into your board room.

Declarations of outrage, inclusion, support and empathy expressed just a few weeks ago may have aged well. But, maybe not.

In the three weeks since the assault on Israel, events have often outpaced anyone’s ability to respond thoughtfully or fully or finally. What is said now in light of “today’s news” and historical perspective may collide with tomorrow’s brutal revelations.

Even professional communication associations – those societies of seasoned PR experts – are overwhelmed.

“PRSA’s New York chapter has released a third statement about the conflict between Israel and Hamas, with its president saying the first two, which were not approved by its full board, were ‘lacking in clarity,’” PRWeek reported last week.

“PRSA’s latest statement takes an impartial stance in comparison to the criticized language of the initial statements. The updated messaging empathizes with Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, those in the Middle East and at home…”

It’s a fraught moment for hospital leaders and healthcare communicators.

Our organizations exist to protect and promote the health and thriving of every human in our care. Many of us have dedicated our professional lives to this calling and are fueled by passion for it. The surprise would be if healthcare leaders did not have a strong emotional response as the news from Israel and Gaza pours onto our screens.

“As doctors with years of medical training, hospital leaders have an especially visceral reaction to the extreme violence unfolding in Israel and Gaza,” writes The Globe, “with many feeling compelled to speak out after witnessing the daily barrage of horrific images.”

And many providers have, in fact, weighed in over the last three weeks, often unequivocally denouncing violence, rejecting hated, acknowledging the need for inclusivity, offering supportive mental health resources and expressing concern for the physical safety of their staff and clinicians.

Each powerful statement has worked hard to capture in a few paragraphs the heartbreak and earnest care that reflects an organization’s mission and its community of caregivers and patients in the shadows of a burning fire.

Even so.

As the conflict persists and tensions build, the public statements and internal memos of three weeks ago are being thoughtfully evaluated. Do those words remain the right words? Is there more to add now? Does every fresh horror call for a new response?

The New York Times, which has issued its own clarifications of its recent coverage, struggled with this very question:

“Sitting with uncertainty is hard,” wrote Elizabeth Spiers. “This is especially true when social media has primed us to expect perfect real-time information during traumatic events and to want instantaneous answers and resolution. Moral certainty is an anchor we cling to when factual certainty is not possible.”

Questions to Ask Now

The Middle East crisis is unique and terrible. But the pressure on health systems to have public positions on politically charged cultural events, national policy issues and global affairs near and far from your primary service area is not new. Dobbs. Gun violence. Ukraine.

You know the best practices in grappling with these tough communication issues.

But we know, too, the challenge of applying them when passions run high. We offer them here again as candid questions to ask as a leadership team when you wonder if your organization should speak now or hold your peace.

  • Know your why. Why speak? What’s the purpose of your message? Is it an emotional catharsis, a kind of “same here” posture or a deeper reflection of your organization’s purpose and plans? Does it advance your mission?
  • Know your constituent cost. To say these issues are complex and can be deeply nuanced is to test the limits of words. Have you considered the consequences of your position in light of the kaleidoscope of communities you serve inside and outside your walls? This is not to suggest you cower from your mission. Instead, it’s to recommend that you anticipate the cost of the friction your statement may create with any single, important audience and move forward having made that calculation.
  • What is the CTA? What do you want to happen as a result of your words? Is there a call to action, a “So, therefore…” that draws your audience to behave in a certain way? To give to a charity, for example, or to access mental health support, to remember certain protocols, or reveal new work or plans underway? If you’re not seeding action, why speak?
  • Weigh your authority. What is the context for your comments? Brands have the greatest credibility when they comment on issues closely associated with their purpose. Women’s reproductive health? For sure. Gun violence? Yes. Some health systems have clear ties to the Middle East or other global communities; the context for them can be clear. The farther the issue is from your doors, the more you must work to connect your comments to your credibility, or risk stretching it.
  • Remember the cascade. A statement on an emotion-packed issue is not just a statement; it’s a corporate position that may ripple through your nursing units and to your patient examination rooms. It’s part of your workforce experience. Equip your leaders and clinicians with the tools they need to listen effectively, guide conversations as appropriate and allow people to express themselves.
  • What precedent is being established? Will speaking on the issue create the expectation that your organization will now weigh in further on this or other issues? If not, what makes this issue – and your accompanying statement – unprecedented? Where does it lead?

A final question. Who is speaking when your organization speaks? It’s not a riddle.

It reflects well on healthcare leaders that so many are moved to speak so passionately in this moment.

But as a communication leader, your great challenge may be to distinguish between your powerful, individual desire to speak – or the desire of your leadership to cry out — from the corporate voice of your organization, its plans, its mission, and all the communities it serves.

This is hard, thoughtful work. The pounding social media feeds and the breathtaking urgency of daily developments do not reward the required calculations. But take the time. When you choose to speak out, speak well.