6 tips for effective crisis communication

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Courtney Malengo, APR
Courtney Malengo, APR

In senior living, we have plans to mitigate disasters and address corporate compliance, drills for elopement and even plans for quality assurance through systems such as QAPI (quality assurance and performance improvement). What plans do we have in place for crisis communication and reputation management?

In today's landscape, it does not take much for an organization to be under siege from consumers, opponents and the media. In the event of a true crisis or disaster, the communication that surrounds it either can reinforce a good reputation, or quickly create a tarnished reputation.

News headlines scream foibles of well-intended, and not-so-well-intended, executives alike. Topics include Medicare fraud, employees accused of resident abuse, a facility at fault for death of a resident, and the list goes on. Or a new acquisition or expansion suddenly becomes controversial and community activists hijack your brand.

What do you do? Is your organization prepared to weather the storm?

When I began working in the senior living sector, I didn't think anything about senior living could be seen as controversial. Boy, was I naïve. These days it seems anything has the capacity to be a landmine waiting to blow. In my nine-year tenure, I have weathered a domestic shooting, employee misconduct, plenty of natural disasters (fire, sinkhole, major power outages) and even a construction-site injury.

This is where purposeful public relations should lead the discussion and messaging for crisis response.

Public relations, or PR, does not mean simply churning out press releases or creating “spin.” It is a far more comprehensive and nuanced discipline that masters both the art and science of communicating with key publics on behalf of an organization. Ethical public relations professionals always advocate for doing the right thing and telling the truth. This includes counseling organizations and executives to make apologies when necessary — in a heartfelt and genuine way.

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”  So often, this is glossed over as marketing. The reality is, although some professionals may do both public relations and marketing (and I am in that group), these skills are not intrinsically the same.

Marketing has a very different purpose. It is defined by the American Marketing Association as “the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners and society at large.”

I am an advocate for marketing and public relations professionals to work together in any organization, but setting the tone for crisis response and messaging should originate with your public relations professional.

When you have to hunker down and weather the storm, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Build a positive reputation. Every organization at some point will have to weather a storm. It becomes much easier to do when you already have spent time building a positive reputation within the community and have good news to show for it. Although this will not erase any future bad press, it will help balance it out when negative press comes your way.
  2. Create a plan. If you do not have an existing crisis communication plan, now is the time to create one or consult with a public relations professional to do so. Having a plan puts you in a proactive stance to respond to crises, and it also provides your staff with an understanding of how the organization will respond in such scenarios. 
  3. Get the facts. When a crisis strikes, get to the bottom of the information and gather all the facts. The more you know, the more accurate you will be with a public statement. Having the facts also will inform you of how to handle the situation best. 
  4. Time is of the essence. There is nothing like a crisis situation to put everyone, including your public relations professional, in the pressure cooker. This is where you either crack under the pressure or endure the storm. When the media want answers, you have to be timely in your responses; otherwise, it looks as if you are hiding something. Although rushing is not advised, sticking your head in the sand will not help either. Keep calm and respond to the media quickly. Stick to the agreed-on script and do not deviate. 
  5. Communicate internally first. Although the media may be hounding you for answers, you cannot forget to communicate first with your internal stakeholders (employees, volunteers, board members, residents, etc.). In the whirlwind of chaos that will ensue, it can be easy to overlook this step. Set up your internal teams for success so they know the plan and response and can embrace them. 
  6. Monitor your brand. While you are busy communicating, you need to ensure you are busy listening, too. That means social media listening and scanning articles and reports to see what is being said about your brand. These details also will help inform your responses and public communication.

Courtney Malengo, an accredited public relations professional (APR), has spent 14 years in various marketing and communication capacities in several industries. The past nine years have focused on crafting public relations and marketing strategies for senior living. She is the director of communications for National Lutheran Communities & Services.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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