For most senior living providers, communicating about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) won’t be an if, but when. A public relations crisis is brewing as older adults are considered an at-risk population, while there is mounting public scrutiny and fear of how COVID-19 is being handled across the country. Consistent, timely communication is more important now than ever.

The COVID-19 outbreak in Washington state has been tied to the Life Care Center in Kirkland. According to one recent article, at least 14 out the overall 19 COVID-19 deaths were related to the Kirkland facility. A quick Google search and review of media will show you how displeased family members and staff are with what’s been communicated.

Cases are proliferating across the country, and the first two East Coast deaths from the disease were older adults from Florida. There is increasing urgency to prevent and contain COVID-19. Former CDC director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., recently penned a CNN article recommending swift action to shut down all visitation for any long-term care or skilled nursing facility. The American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living subsequently called for senior living and nursing home visitations to stop.

We all know that preparation is the best possible form of prevention; communication is the best antidote for fear. Besides operational preparedness, your company should have a crisis communications plan ready to deploy. The reputation and integrity of your organization will be on the line, and every action, or inaction, will be scrutinized once COVID-19 is detected. Understand that your community is about to go on trial in the court of public opinion. Here are some tips to communicate before and after COVID-19 cases are detected, to ensure that you are positioned to weather the storm.

Before cases show up:

  • Be proactive. Have a communications team in place that is prepared to keep residents, family members and staff apprised changes. COVID-19 is a fluid situation that must be monitored and evaluated continually, to provide strategic insight as to when and what communications are needed.
  • Communicate prevention. Repeatedly share what you are doing to prevent possible COVID-19 cases at your community. Communicate reduced or eliminated visitation hours, health screening protocols, enhanced disinfection routines and anything that goes above and beyond what currently is required.
  • Communicate the process. Ensure that your staff members know what the process is for screening and reporting symptoms in themselves and residents.
  • Monitor news, social media and health officials. Keep tabs on public sentiment and any potential cases at nearby locations or facilities. Learn from the good and bad of how other providers have handled this situation.
  • Have a plan for quarantine. Make sure you have a plan in place if a quarantine becomes necessary. Beyond having that plan (which may be a variation of an emergency or pandemic plan), share it to your staff members so they are in the know.
  • Draft statement language now. While you have the luxury of time to finesse your wording, draft a variety of approved statements. This will give you time to focus on the last-minute specifics when you are bombarded by media inquiries.

When cases show up:

  • Communicate quickly and transparently. Time is not on your side in controlling information and the narrative. Therefore, a timely disclosure of facts to residents, family, staff members and the public is critical for your reputation.
  • Be consistent. Providing regular updates fosters open communication with your community. This simple act requires consistency and discipline but goes a long way in calming the nerves of those with questions. Recognize that communications must be ongoing and updated as new information comes to light. It is the only way to garner trust and quell panic.
  • Cooperate with the media and be sensitive to deadlines. “No comment” is not a good comment. Designate one media spokesperson, and prepare strict talking points that control your narrative and reiterate what you want to convey. You want to develop an open, cooperative rapport with the media.
  • Communicate first to staff, residents and family. Those affected by the situation need to be the first to know. Nothing undermines your communication strategy more than when your inner community learn things from external sources. They need to hear from you first. Ensure that there is a seamless and immediate way for these groups to receive information.
  • Assume everything is public. Know that any internal memo to staff or residents can, and likely will, get into the hands of the media. Treat all information as though it were public, not private. Be consistent with your internal and external messaging.
  • Respond to all inquiries on social media. While time-consuming, it is crucial to dispel misinformation and show that your organization is responsive and transparent.

Although these tips do not represent an exhaustive list, they help lay the foundation for proactive communication and managing your community’s reputation during a COVID-19 crisis. Finally, remember to take a deep breath and follow the sage British World War II advice to “keep calm and carry on.” It will be chaotic, it will be stressful, but with the right plans in place and a consistent, transparent communications strategy, your team will be prepared to weather any storm that comes your way.

Courtney Malengo is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story in good times and in bad. She has 17 years’ experience leading branding, public relations and communications initiatives, 10 of which were spent in senior living. Courtney has counseled executive teams in times of crisis, tackling situations from employee misconduct and natural disasters to a shooting and now COVID-19.