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Coronavirus Crisis Communications Tips for Healthcare Organizations

March 19, 2020

COVID-19 crisis communications

The 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19), caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), is rapidly spreading throughout the world. Here in the U.S., the disease is expected to infect 20-60% of the population before the pandemic finishes its course. In terms of the number of reported cases, the U.S. is approximately two weeks behind Italy, which is currently struggling to make room for virus patients in hospitals and other medical care facilities.
 
Every business is feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Health and wellness retailers and other businesses with frequent foot traffic have been ordered to shut down their brick-and-mortar stores in many states. Some are able to operate digitally, while others who work in a more clinical setting remain open.
 
By now, you’ve probably received several emails from both public and private organizations regarding how they are handling business operations during the coronavirus outbreak. This is because they’re following best practices when it comes to Crisis Communications.
 
It’s important to be forthright and available when it comes to interacting with your audience during this difficult time. By proactively answering important questions, you can help to assuage public fears. If your business has been forced to close, or you fear your business must close in the not-so-distant future for the sake of “flattening the curve,” you may have no choice but to issue a statement to your patients, customers, and/or community to let them know you’re doing what you can to help prevent the spread of disease.
 
But for healthcare organizations who are fighting the epidemic on the frontlines, or are interacting with the public because other health conditions don’t cease to exist just because a new virus takes prominence, addressing your patients’ concerns is the necessary and responsible thing to do. Here’s how your healthcare organization can survive this difficult time.

Develop a Communication Plan

The best time to develop a communication plan is before a crisis happens. If you do not have a plan already in place, proceed to our next step for immediate Crisis Communication Plan implementation.
 
In order for hospitals and many healthcare providers to participate in the Medicare or Medicaid program, compliance with CMS’ Emergency Preparedness rule is required. This rule includes three core elements:
  1. Developing and executing a communication plan
  2. Compliance with federal and state laws
  3. Well-coordinated communication within the facility, across healthcare providers, and with state and local public health departments and emergency management agencies
The best plans anticipate various crises before they happen. Within your plan, lay out proactive steps your organization can begin implementing now to avoid such crises from developing later. This could include additional and ongoing training or backup protocols created with the assumption that the worst could happen. CMS requires facilities to demonstrate completion of two emergency exercises per rolling 12-month interval—a good recommendation for any healthcare organization. Instituting occasional drills will help ensure that your staff are prepared to function in high-stress situations.
 
The Crisis Communication Plan also establishes a chain of command for communication, which is imperative during the first five minutes of a crisis. The crisis communication chain of command lists out designated key stakeholders who should be informed of the crisis and in what order they should be contacted. Based on their defined role in the Crisis Communication Plan, they will likely implement the first steps when it concerns prioritizing patient care and employee protection.
 
For other healthcare organizations, the coronavirus serves as a harsh reminder that crises come when they’re least expected, with little to no warning, and may be vastly underestimated initially until more information is known or as the situation progresses.
 
If you find yourself suddenly wondering if/how/when to address your patients during this difficult time, use the following tips as a guide to planning your next critical steps.

Identify Key Stakeholders

A group of key stakeholders will make up your crisis communications team. They provide ownership of the creation, approval, and implementation of the Crisis Communication Plan. Each member of the team should have a clearly defined role.
 
The Crisis Communications Team ideally includes:
  • Your organization’s CEO
  • Legal counsel
  • Company spokesperson
  • Primary contact person for external agencies and organizations
  • Your in-house PR executive or an executive from your PR agency
  • Communication and/or marketing manager
  • Department heads (including IT)
  • Subject matter experts with special knowledge related to the current crisis
When facing a crisis, this team should get together as soon as possible to discuss the most important messages that need to be relayed. Ideally, they would follow the existing communication plan or any existing protocols relevant to the crisis. Because a pandemic like COVID-19 has rarely ever been seen up until this point, you may find yourself creating new protocols on the fly as a response.
 
This group should also identify any other subject matter experts needed to be as informed as possible, creating communication channels to source experts as necessary. Once messaging is created, draft an approved public statement for your organization and determine the communication channels through which you’ll spread the message. This includes your organization’s communication systems, social media, traditional media outreach, website, mobile, and email technologies. If there’s a system outage or digital communication is not available, create a backup plan that includes intranet page ticker messages, phone messaging, walkie talkies, radio communication, and even satellite phones if necessary.
 
Working with an expert in public relations in a crisis is a wise choice, as they typically have media contacts to help control the spread of a desired message. Many PR experts can provide media training, ensuring the designated spokesperson is articulate, comfortable answering difficult questions, and able to remain calm under pressure.

Provide Clear and Effective Messaging

Proactive communication is essential during a crisis. In addition to your organization’s public statement and overall messaging, members of the Crisis Communication Team will be designated to disseminate information internally among your organization and externally to the media, stakeholders, and the public. Knowing your audiences and what is important to them will help you understand who should receive the information and adjust the messages and methods of delivery accordingly.
 
The first course of action should be to create a fact sheet comprised of a list of information pertaining to the crisis. Next, identify and answer common questions that can be put together in an FAQ sheet. This will help prevent rumors and misinterpretations and improve transparency that helps build trust with your patients or customers. It’s important to:
  • Be honest
  • Avoid speculation or exaggeration
  • Follow up when you agree to do so, even if additional information is not available
  • Augment/refine messaging as more information becomes available
  • Determine what patient information can be released, given state and federal privacy restrictions
  • Explain why you are unable to share certain details
  • Maintain focus on short- and long-term goals
  • Stay calm and professional
A good first step is to issue an email to your patients/customers. There are a lot of coronavirus emails hitting inboxes at this time, and many of these messages are being deleted without ever being opened. If your audience isn’t used to hearing from you on a regular basis, consider narrowing your list to patients/customers who have recently interacted with you. Sending emails to an inactive list will only hurt your reputation and bring down your email stats.
 
Reactive communication is equally important. Whether or not your organization uses social media to engage your patients, you can bet your patients are on social media looking for guidance amid the lack of authoritative sources sharing unverified information online. Monitoring local community conversations and brand mentions is vital during times of crises. Any negative social media comments or mentions should be dealt with immediately and with consistency.

Post-Crisis Evaluation

Crises do eventually come to an end, whether they’re short-lived incidents or an ongoing pandemic such as COVID-19. The U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams says the U.S. is “at a critical inflection point in this country” with scientific reports showing a grim scenario if no actions are made to limit the spread of the virus. World Health Organization (WHO) member Walter Ricciardi predicts life could return to “normal” by the summer if people implement social distancing and continue with basic public health measures such as hand washing, covering mouths when coughing, and cleaning surfaces. Once overwhelmed by the coronavirus where the disease originated, daily cases in China are dwindling into the single digits — a stark contrast from when the WHO was first alerted about the virus in December 2019.
 
Healthcare organizations can look to the WHO and the CDC as an example of what COVID-19 Crisis Communication Plans look like. As healthcare professionals find themselves on the frontlines, either battling this epidemic or in some way interfacing with the public, there’s no better time to implement a Crisis Communication Plan than now. When you use the tips above, your patients will appreciate your efforts as you help them remain calm in this time of public panic. This could mean the difference between losing patients/customers or acquiring new patients/customers. 
 
When we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we suggest reconvening with the Crisis Communication Team to discuss the following:
  • How effective was our Crisis Communication Plan? (If one existed)
  • Do we need a Crisis Communication Plan? (If one did not exist prior)
  • What lessons did we learn?
  • What could have been done better?
  • Where did we excel?
  • Do policies or protocols need to be amended?
  • What type of training could have improved our response?
  • Did any actions prevent the problem from becoming worse?
Once you perform an audit of your Crisis Communication Plan, you learn from possible missteps and develop a remediation plan to address any reputational damage. If you determine that you’re in need of Crisis Communication Plan or an experienced PR partner to help manage your reputation and avoid future crises, contact the PR experts at Quaintise.