John Hellerman and Michele High headshots
John Hellerman and Michele High
John Hellerman headshot
John Hellerman
Michele High headshot
Michele High

Bad things happen to good companies, and even worse things happen to bad companies. Although businesses can’t prevent every tragedy or crisis, steps can be taken to mitigate their effects.

A crisis presents enormous threats and represents significant risk to a senior living community’s reputation, operations, market share, employee morale and overall financial performance. There is little room for error, and response time must be quick.

For a senior living professionals, it’s important to understand how vital effective communication is during a crisis situation. It involves three essential elements: planning, identification and management.


The US Secret Service has a saying: “Plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

This is excellent advice, because proper planning — in any form of communication, but especially during a crisis (or major litigation resulting from a crisis) — can have a huge impact on whether a situation is resolved successfully. Although many senior living communities invest in crisis planning (for instance, what to do if there is a fire), they don’t often plan around the communications necessary to mitigate the reputational capital that can be lost during such a crisis. This means that their first response to any damaging event or issue is a reactive, defensive one rather than their proactively addressing the problem.

Nowadays, when almost all significant problems are accompanied (or preceded) by litigation and media interest, getting put on the defensive out of the gate is a risky strategy and an expensive position to overcome. For senior living professionals, it’s important to establish early warning alarms to identify problems likely to create larger emergencies and appropriate planning enables them to do so.

Such planning usually begins with an audit: What is the “business” of the business, and where might likely problems occur? For instance, senior living communities still reeling from the COVID-19 outbreak might also consider the severe reputational damage and potential financial loss to the community resulting from litigation involving staff issues such as abuse and stealing, or resident issues such as elopement, injuries and negative reviews, or general things such as a fire or flood, problematic vendors, lack of regulatory compliance, etc.

Once potential “hot spots” are identified, the plan should offer recommendations and solutions to mitigate potential damage. As an example, consider a senior living community that is dealing with an abusive staff member (or resident). The plan should identify the threat and seek to offer solutions to mitigate potential damage.

For instance, the community should have an established protocol for staff training and a confidential reporting system as well as make a routine effort to communicate the seriousness with which it takes such allegations and its willingness to thoroughly investigate the complaints. With such policies in place, if an incident did occur, the senior living community would not be so vulnerable to charges that it did not care about the well-being of its residents, and the bad publicity would not be as damaging to its business operations.


Identification is the second element of effective crisis communication. For senior living professionals, it’s important to be aware of potential problems that may arise and to act before those problems escalate.

Problems that linger or are not dealt with properly tend to snowball and lead to emergencies. As one leads to another, the failure to deal with each can lead to institutional paralysis. The No. 1 thing a company always must possess is its ability to make decisions. A company that fails to act will quickly become a company unable to survive.

A rule that applies to both the identification and management stages of a crisis communications situation is that public opinion is not about reality — rather, it is about perception. Therefore, perceived threats and problems are just as important as real ones; they too, must be identified and dealt with appropriately.


The final element of effective crisis communication is management. Because public opinion is all about perception over reality, public and internal communications must establish perceptions first.

The public is very skeptical. Given the ongoing pandemic, senior living communities and nursing homes are “guilty until proven innocent.” Arrogance, saying “no comment” and/or responding with terse denials about questioned ethics are seldom, if ever, successful crisis communications strategies.

Unlike a court of law, in the court of public opinion, the defense should (almost always) take the stand. The press is driven by its need to tell a story. Failure to provide a coherent explanation about matters under question means the media will fill their stories with messages detrimental to your own.

So providers very rarely should stay silent.

What follows are 11 recommendations to manage communications in the media during a crisis or major litigation:

  1. Designate one person to act as a spokesman for the organization. This is rarely ever the community’s lawyer. The spokesman is usually the CEO, executive director or other top executive. Top executives, however, are not always the best spokespersons. Sometimes, technical experts or third-party allies are best. Deciding who speaks is critical and says a lot about how serious the company considers the problem. Do not have the CEO respond to a minor problem — the press will think it is more important than it is. Do not have mid-level spokespersons talk to the press if a tragedy occurred (for example, health effects, loss of life, etc.) because the company will look callous.
  2. Develop message points based on facts. When responding to questions, remember to communicate the truth (as much as needed to fulfill the public’s need to know) and to comfort all affected audiences by exuding compassion and an understanding of their concerns.
  3. Media-train the spokesperson. Next to planning (and especially in its absence), media training is the single most important factor in dealing with a crisis.
  4. Communicate to internal audiences first. Making sure internal audiences hear the story from organization leaders before hearing it from the media builds and enforces trust. Internal support is critical, because this audience often is used by the news media to perpetuate unflattering messages.
  5. Educate the media. The media are the intermediaries between the organization’s story and the public, and the more they know and understand the issues at stake, the better off the organization will be. Messages should demystify complex arguments and provide as much information as possible to create an on-going, beneficial dialogue.
  6. Fix the problem. As the saying goes, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Essential to any crisis situation is the organization’s efforts to fix the underlying problem causing it. Additionally, the company should approach the “repair phase” as an opportunity for a new position in the marketplace. For instance, if the community has a horrible record of hiring, promoting or retaining minority employees, then the community should create new policies to ensure future success and take the lead amongst its competitors in the market as an innovator. This is more than “spinning” the negative story to the press. It is providing a material solution for the problem to save and even promote the brand.
  7. Think creatively. Look for alternative methods to solve problems, not necessarily through a dialogue in the press. What are the politics of the situation? What position do the effected parties hold in the community? Does the company employ a lot of people? Who do they know, and how can those relationships be leveraged? For instance, the publisher of a small-town newspaper also might sit on the board of the town’s senior living community. If a crisis breaks out that threatens the community’s reputation, is it possible that the relationship can be leveraged so that the local paper provides balanced rather than negative coverage?
  8. Aggressively argue and prove your case. Take the initiative rather than surrender it. One of the biggest mistakes businesses make in crisis situations is that they “go dark” and let their critics define the issues and determine the implications.
  9. Use independent experts and third-party allies to help the media and public understand the issues at stake.
  10. Manage your expectations. The mindset should be balanced versus negative coverage, not favorable versus negative coverage. This is a very important distinction. Expectations of management must be tuned to the fact that in most crises the best coverage to hope for is balanced, the alternative being negative.  Given the difficult circumstances of most crises, favorable coverage of a company experiencing one is extremely rare.
  11. Hire professionals to plan for, identify and mange crisis communications situations. Many times, companies defer to their crisis communications activities to their legal counsel. Unfortunately, the results can be devastating. The law may save a company in the courtroom, but companies need the public to use and trust their services after the crisis (or successful litigation) is over. Communications strategy should supplement and support the legal strategy and at the same time remain independent. Therefore, in a crisis situation, once the lawyers are in place, hiring professional communicators should be the very next step.

John Hellerman is a Chambers-ranked litigation communications specialist and the founder of Hellerman Communications, an award-winning corporate communications agency specializing in reputation management. He can be reached at (202) 841-8153 and at [email protected]

Michele High, CDP, ADC leads the elder care practice at Hellerman Communications and has extensive experience in care facility compliance and home care management. She can be reached at (215) 272-7004 and at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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