Since the start of the pandemic, I have helped one hospital client brace for communications surrounding a possible surge in COVID-19 cases at that facility. We deployed a proactive communications program for a worst-case scenario that, fortunately, to date hasn’t materialized. Now, we’re in the process of working to rebuild a sense of normalcy to the hospital’s other services, including diagnostics, elective surgeries and other medically necessary procedures.

Meanwhile, as the pandemic has hit other regions hard, and as it has affected both hospitals and senior living and care facilities equally hard, a new crisis is starting to emerge.

That crisis is one of confidence in the system, and more specifically the system for caring for older adults and those with disabilities or other conditions.

I talked with a fellow communicator who works for a small long-term care company. Her comments were similar to comments I’ve heard from my clients in the senior living area. She said that the industry is seeing residents and employees leave in the midst of the crisis. Compounding the issue is the cost associated with complying with temporary rules related to the pandemic and meeting operating costs.

The question this person asked me was: Which PR strategies could be used “to increase business at homes and attract employees?” And then she added, “This pandemic has really sunk the industry’s reputation, and it’s going to take a lot to revive it.”

What can senior living and care facilities do to restore confidence?

It’s not uncommon for senior living and care organizations to build their communications functions around marketing, so when unexpected crises happen, they have their own way of dealing with it. More often than not, a crisis erupts from an isolated instance, such as a dispute between a resident’s family and a community, which they contend mistreated their loved one. This can lead to volatile social media posts and, possibly, news media coverage.

Because such things happen one at a time, they are not systemic and can be addressed as “one-offs.” What the pandemic has created, however, is a systemic problem, one not limited to one senior living community, one organization or one geographic region. The entire industry suffers when news outlets report that multiple residents in one location were infected and then died from COVID-19.

This problem is exacerbated when senior living and care communities in some states are required to take patients with the coronavirus.

It is the sad reality and within this context that all senior living and care organizations must operate. So, before one organization or an entire industry can seek to rebuild confidences as part of an effort to restore a sense of normalcy, no small amount of groundwork has to be done that starts with how those organizations are communicating right now.

It starts with how you communicate directly with residents and families and continues from there. In times of systemic crisis, it’s not advisable to place the burden of communication solely on nursing staff members and primarily through verbal means.

Because of social distancing rules, your caregivers can’t communicate with family members in person and are forced to rely on phone conversations, for the most part. This reality can be severely limiting in terms of maintaining and building trust and confidence with families.

That said, the organization much maintain a proactive stance for communication, using all of the tools at its disposal to answer questions before they are asked. Some of the tools in a proactive approach:

  • e-newsletters and texts, as appropriate;
  • website updates;
  • blog posts;
  • video messages that can be posted on social media;
  • a regular schedule of substantive social media posts;
  • institution of FaceTime or some other remote video capability where individual residents can see and talk to family members.

Strategically speaking, the message should center on the organization’s commitment to go beyond compliance when it comes to preserving the safety and well-being of residents — to explain in detail the measures being taken to protect their communities’ residents and employees.

And to continue to maintain marketing outreach through all of the organization’s marketing channels, but with a decided shift in focus. Make the content topical and tied to what the organization is doing right now to ensure a safe environment for current and future residents and workers.

If there is one crisis communications lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic for the senior living and care industry, it is that now is not the time to wait. It’s the time to take the lead in communication so that the challenges that will present themselves after the crisis ends are not as significant as they otherwise would be if the posture was wait-and-see.

Tim O’Brien, a senior level corporate communications counselor, formed O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice, in June 2001 after serving as communications director and the chief investor relations officer at Tollgrade Communications, a Nasdaq company at that time. Before Tollgrade, he spent 10 years at Ketchum, where he was a vice president, a member of the Pittsburgh office’s management committee, and a leader in Ketchum’s national workplace and crisis communications practice areas. O’Brien earned his undergraduate degree, with majors in journalism and speech communications, at Duquesne University.