Crisis Communications – A roadmap for strategic public relations in a crisis
Now that we’re a few weeks into this world-wide pandemic, perhaps you are reflecting on how you and your veterinary leadership team have handled this crisis. Because, it has been said that if you don’t tell people what you want them to know, they will make it up. Let that sink in a minute. This blog will help you assess your veterinary clinic’s own response and outline a step by step process to address the next big issue.
It is human nature to form a narrative in our minds as to what people or businesses are doing if we don’t hear from them based on our own perspective and context. So don’t think your referring veterinary partners or pet owners aren’t doing the same.
If you have not been on top of regular and consistent communication during the COVID-19 epidemic, you are missing out not only a huge opportunity, but you are really telling (by not telling) your audiences that they don’t really mean all that much to you, and, you might be sending a message that your practice is not doing well.
Let me explain. Crisis communication is a sub-specialty of the public relations profession that is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation. You may not think that COVID-19 poses a risk to YOUR veterinary hospital or business’ reputation. Ah, but it does. It’s how you act or don’t act (internally and externally) that further communicates who you are as a company and what you stand for (your brand).
People (your team and external constituents) will remember long after the crisis is over how you treated them during the challenges. And the future of your business can be deeply affected by what you DO during times like these.
Every organization is vulnerable to crises. The days of playing ostrich – burying your head in the sand and hoping the problem goes away – are gone – especially with the internet and digital communication. Experience demonstrates that organizational leadership often does not understand that in the absence of adequate internal and external communications:
- An operational response will break down, not occur at all, or be slow to manifest
- Stakeholders will not know what is happening and quickly become confused, angry, and negatively reactive
- The organization will be perceived as inept, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst
- The length of time required to bring full resolution to the issue will be extended, often dramatically with longer-lasting effects
- The impact on the financial and reputational bottom line will be more severe
The 10 Steps of Crisis Communications for Veterinary Clinics
The basic steps of effective crisis communications are not difficult, but they require advance work in order to minimize damage. If you’re serious about crisis preparedness and response, read and implement these 10 steps of crisis communications, the first seven of which can and should be undertaken before any crisis occurs.
- Anticipate Crises
This assessment process should lead to creating a Crisis Response Plan that is an exact fit for your organization, one that includes both operational and communications components. The remaining steps, below, outline some of the major topics that should be addressed in the communications section of the plan.
- Identify your Crisis Communication Team
A small team of senior leaders should be identified to serve as your organization’s Crisis Communications Team. Ideally, the organization’s CEO will lead the team. [Seek legal guidance when appropriate.]
- Identify and Train Spokespersons
Categorically, any organization should ensure that only authorized spokespersons speak for it. This is particularly important during a crisis. Each crisis communications team should have people who have been pre-screened and trained, to be the lead and/or backup spokespersons for different channels of communications.
- Spokesperson Training
You must KNOW the critical differences between proactive PR which focuses on promoting your organization, and crisis communications, which focuses on preserving and leading your organization. Spokesperson training teaches you to be prepared, to be ready to respond in a way that optimizes the response of all stakeholders.
- Establish Notification and Monitoring Systems
It is absolutely essential, pre-crisis, to establish notification systems that will allow you to rapidly reach your pet owners and referring veterinarians using multiple modalities. By using multiple modalities to reach your stakeholders, the chances are much greater that the message will go through.
- Identify and Know Your Stakeholders
I consider employees to be your most important audience because every employee is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organization whether you want them to be or not! But, ultimately, all stakeholders will be talking about you to others, not on your contact list, so it’s up to you to ensure that they receive the messages you would like them to repeat elsewhere – before information gets out into the community.
- Develop “Holding Statements”
Holding statements are messages designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks and can be developed in advance to be used for a wide variety of scenarios to which the organization is perceived to be vulnerable. For example, a practice that has experienced a natural disaster may state:
“We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff.”
“Our thoughts are with those who were in harm’s way, and we hope that they are well.”
“We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our website.”
Don’t wait until you have all the details to speak. The silence can do much more damage than the actual crisis. Personalize your statements as quickly as possible so they don’t sound canned.
During A Crisis
- Assess the Crisis Situation
Reacting without adequate information is a classic “shoot first and ask questions afterward” situation in which you could be the primary victim. If you haven’t prepared in advance, your reaction will be delayed by the time it takes your in-house staff or quickly hired consultants to run through steps 1 to 7. Furthermore, a hastily created crisis communications strategy and team are never as efficient as those planned and rehearsed in advance.
What if your crash cart wasn’t stocked!
- Finalize and Adapt Key Messages
Holding Statements are a start and you must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any given situation. What should stakeholders know about this crisis? Keep it simple. Have no more than three main messages that go to all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders.
- Communicate Frequently and Honestly
Fear grows in silence. Confidence grows through communication. Most people will rise up and deal with a crisis appropriately if they know what they are dealing with, how it impacts them/their job, and understand what you want/expect from them. Be the light. The fungus grows in the dark.
- Post-Crisis Analysis
What did we learn (do a post-mortem) and adjust for next time, because there will be a next time.
Stay well – from our family to yours.
If you need additional assistance navigating your communication strategy and plans during the COVID-19 situation, please contact the management and marketing teams here at BluePrints.