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Every scenario in senior living potentially could become a crisis situation. The key to surviving is a solid crisis communication plan, according to a communications expert.

“There’s risk in everything we do as senior living providers and communities,” Christopher Ruth, senior director of public relations for the nonprofit, faith-based social service organization Buckner International, headquartered in Dallas. “Anything can escalate if not properly tended to.”

Ignoring warnings or complaints from residents or employees can gradually snowball, Ruth said. Crisis communication is preparation and response, but also thinking about how to avoid getting into a crisis.

The three types of crises, he said, are immediate, emerging and sustained.

Ruth likened an immediate crisis to a tornado — it can come out of nowhere — whereas emerging crises involve issues that are brewing and provide warning signs that a situation could escalate.

Sustained crises, he said, are situations in which providers “shoot themselves in the foot” through continued negativity due to a situation being poorly handled from the beginning. In those cases, Ruth said, the news cycle may latch onto a crisis and perpetuate public attention to it even though the organizations may have moved past it.

Preparation is key

The key to avoiding a crisis, Ruth said, is preparation by having a crisis communications plan. That means less reacting to “fires” and more effort in risk management and crisis management.

“Take the time to really try and predict your problems, anticipate your threats and minimize those risks,” he said. “You can do that through an environment scanning of your organization.”

Among the potential scenarios that could escalate into a crisis are resident falls, abuse situations and even severe weather events. Although they are unpredictable, Ruth said, once an organization identifies scenarios, it can create potential responses and put processes in place to act quickly.

“The goal of all crises is to restore or maintain trust with your stakeholders,” he said, adding that senior living providers need to understand that employees are their No. 1 stakeholder. “From there, your objectives are to respond in a timely manner, demonstrate we care [and] continue that restoration of trust.”

Organizations that have survived a crisis are the ones who take responsibility for addressing it, respond immediately, and apologize and empathize without admitting fault, Ruth said. 

“Look at demonstrations of care, and walk the walk,” he said. “That honesty, that transparency, it resonates; it’s genuine. You cannot fake that.”

To create a crisis plan, Ruth suggested that organizations summarize their emergency plans. Plans should include a chain of command and an outline for when to activate the crisis communication plan.

“Any crisis is a business problem before it’s a communications problem,” he said, adding that a need exists to jump into action as an organization.

Ruth credited several sources for many of the crisis communications concepts and theories he discussed, including Helio Fred Garcia’s “The Agony of Decision,” Steven Fink’s “Crisis Management,” James Lukaszewski’s “Why Should the Boss Listen to You?” and Tony Jacques’ “Crisis Counsel.”

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