Few businesses encounter as many risks as senior living and care facilities.

The composition of these organizations – entry-level staff members with extraordinarily high turnover caring for an extremely sensitive population – make them a “powder keg” of risk and, as a result, a challenge to own and manage. Adding to the inherent dangers owners and operators face are a complex web of state and federal regulations, the responsibility of securing a treasure trove of residents’ personal health information and an almost infinite number of in-facility accidents waiting to happen. A misstep in any direction can attract the attention of a range of constituencies, including investors, payers, plaintiffs’ lawyers, lawmakers, regulators and the media.

Perhaps a less obvious but no less serious risk involves the nuances around communicating about a crisis when one eventually does hit. Because a senior living community’s or nursing facility’s network of stakeholders – those who are invested in how successfully care is administered – is so diverse and complex, the specific concerns of those audiences vary broadly. If not communicated about thoughtfully, transparently and in a timely manner, what could be a minor issue at your community quickly can spiral out of control.

What can you do?

Although many communities have implemented measures to protect residents and their data from inherent risks and ensure compliance with federal and state regulations, crises at senior living and care facilities – from data breaches, to Medicare fraud, to quality of care issues –  still regularly make headlines. The ubiquity of social media, as well as the increasing use of the internet by seniors, ensure that those headlines are amplified and shared widely. Without a plan for investigating and responding to these incidents, even the most well-run facility will find itself the subject of unsavory attention.

Developing a communications strategy well before a crisis occurs will help you and your leadership team understand what risks you’re facing, navigate the complexities and sensitivities of the audiences that will be watching, and facilitate a return to normal business operations as quickly as possible. Here are three steps in the process.

1. Understand your risk profile

The first step in developing a crisis communications plan is understanding where the threats lie, as well as the aggravating factors that could turn those threats into reality. Consult with senior leaders to understand threats specific to their domains, and develop a bespoke list of threats for your community. More broadly, monitor industry news and surveys to gain a full picture of emerging issues and insights into how other communities have handled crises – for better or worse.

2. Map out your audiences

A lack of understanding about your audiences, what they care about and how they receive information can be fatal in a crisis. It is crucial to determine how the concerns of each audience differ and to prioritize audiences. In the event of a data breach, for instance, communicating quickly with residents and their families might feel like the right move, but running afoul of state-by-state notification laws or a looming notification requirement from the Federal Trade Commission could make matters worse rather than better.

Establish your community’s policies for interacting with the media, and make sure those policies are communicated to all staff members in advance of a potential incident. Work with your legal department to understand when regulators or residents must be notified, and prepare brief statements that can be deployed in the event of any pre-identified risk scenarios. 

3. Develop an effective response team

Too many “cooks in the kitchen” and paralysis when it comes to making difficult decisions – these are two of the most common root causes of poor crisis communications.

In a crisis, speed is crucial, so you must remove bottlenecks that will slow down important communications from getting out the door. Select a core group of internal experts beforehand, determine a maximum three-step approval process, and ensure that the communications team and senior leadership knows who will – and will not – be involved in approving written communications.

Finally, run test crisis scenarios to ensure that everyone knows his or her role and to identify any gaps in responsibilities. When an incident occurs, don’t be afraid to implement your plan.

With tens of thousands of senior living and care facilities in the United States, it’s no secret that the industry is highly competitive. The industry also is a magnet for risk that will continue to draw the attention of regulators, media, potential litigants and lawmakers. Failing to take crisis communications seriously increases the legal, financial and reputational risks you could encounter.

Smart management teams accept the risks facing their communities and dedicate their time upfront to readying themselves and their staffs. These are the teams that will continue to thrive in this highly competitive and increasingly risk-laden environment.

Related Articles