Crisis communication plans are essential for today’s senior living communities.

Listen to Love & Company’s latest podcast or read the transcription below! Chris Carruthers, VP of Health Services Marketing discusses crisis communications with Kayla Caw, PR and integrated media manager.

CC: Thank you for joining us today for the Love & Company Leaders’ Board podcast. I’m Chris Carruthers, Vice President of Health Services Marketing, and today I will be talking with Kayla Caw, our PR and integrated media manager here at Love & Company. Kayla is a three-year veteran at Love & Company, with six total years in the digital communications realm and holds a masters in leadership and communication, during which she focused on crisis communications, which just so happens to be today’s topic of discussion. Kayla, could you give us a brief introduction to your background in crisis communication and why preparing for a crisis is an important task for senior living communities today?

KC: Sure, thanks for talking with me today, Chris. So, I did my undergraduate degree in communications with a PR concentration. During my senior year, I studied how Johnson & Johnson handled the tampered Tylenol recall in 1982, which really kind of sparked my interest and passion in crisis communication. My first post-college job was at a health system, where I also served on the emergency management committee and helped create crisis communications plans–especially as they related to the social media presence that I was building. Then, when I went back for my master’s, I chose to use my capstone project to create a guide for ethical crisis communication on social media. It’s been a real passion of mine for quite some time, and I get really excited when I talk about it, so I’m looking forward to this.

So, why is preparing for a crisis an important task for senior living communities today? You know, really, it comes down to the fact that a crisis can emerge at any time, and in today’s social and digital world, it can go from zero to 150 in no time at all. So, without a proper plan in place, you’re going to be behind the ball when it’s time to respond.

CC: So true! Good points, Kayla. What are some of the trends, issues and strategies for effective crisis management today? And can you tell us a little bit about how all these apply to the senior living industry, please?

KC: Sure. So, as far as trends go: we’re seeing crises unfold on social media, which is not always ideal. Information, whether it’s right or wrong, spreads in an instant and people who have never heard of your brand or company will villify it based on one post, one video or one photo that’s being shared on social. There also seems to be a trend of people sharing the negative in the moment, but not sharing the positive or the resolution–particularly if the resolution comes after the very short news cycle has passed. So, for example, do you remember the outrage after a video was sent to TMZ allegedly showing the animals in the movie “A Dog’s Purpose” were treated poorly and were forced to do tricks that they didn’t want to and stuff like that?

CC: Yes, I do.

KC: So, with that, the outrage was so great that the movie premiere was actually cancelled. They still released it, but the event around it was cancelled. And it’s a really good chance that if you have a Facebook account that you saw that video in that week leading up to the premiere. But even if you saw that video, chances are good that you did not see the follow-up report by American Humane, which is the company that runs and monitors that no animals were harmed in the making of this film or show. Their investigation, which was done by a well-respected third party, found that no animals were harmed, that there were numerous preventative safety measures in place, and that the video that had been released was deliberately edited to mislead the public and to stoke outrage. So, the problem with these crises unfolding on social is that that investigation took time, and so the team couldn’t respond right away, and that meant that the news cycle had passed and people’s lasting impression was that “this thing happened and it was really bad” and a lot of people don’t get to see the resolution at the end. So that’s kind of a trend that we’re seeing that’s not really great and not good news, but still something we have to keep in mind so we can figure out ways to battle that.

A big issue that I’m seeing right now from a communications perspective–and I’m not saying that this is an issue in every company, but I’m seeing it more often than I would like to see–is leaders not taking responsibility when something goes wrong. So last year when it was revealed that Wells Fargo had been fined for employees opening up to two million fake accounts, their CEO, instead of taking ownership, placed the blame on lower-level employees. And it wasn’t until after it came to light that this practice was deeply rooted in the company culture, a massive change in culture had to happen. That CEO ended up leaving Wells Fargo, but he didn’t really take any ownership and he didn’t even apologize until he was in front of the Senate talking about what happened. So that’s an issue that’s going to plague Wells Fargo for a long time. They’ve had to spend a lot of money in creative and in marketing to try and talk about what they’re doing to fix it, but the damage to their reputation has been great and probably will be for a long time.

Another recent example is from back in April, I think, when the passenger was dragged off the United flight, the CEO did respond quickly, but he responded with what I would consider a non-apology. He placed the blame on the passenger, called the passenger disruptive and belligerent, and it really comes down to whether or not United was within it’s rights to remove the passenger. A perception crisis is still a crisis that can and will impact business. So the video that was being shared of this bloody passenger being pulled off a flight to make room for a United employee is not a good visual, and here the CEO could’ve simply said from the beginning that the treatment of this customer was unacceptable, that an investigation into the incident would be initiated, and that an any underlying issues would be corrected. But his lack of responsibility of responsibility and ownership made this even worse. He did then have to go back the next day and issue a better apology because the first one wasn’t really an apology to start with.

So as far as strategies go, the top strategies for managing a crisis really boil down to telling the truth, telling it in a human way and then telling it as quickly as possible. Corporations don’t exist without humans, policies don’t write themselves; somewhere a human was involved. And if you’re among the higher ranking staff in a corporation in a crisis, you can’t pass the blame. You have to take enough ownership of the problem to find a solution, even if you didn’t cause it. You also have to interact and speak with and to people like they are people, and not just a figure in your budget or your ledger. Few things will raise people’s ire on social media more than seeing what they believe is someone being treated without compassion or empathy by a company.

So, tying this all back to senior living: the principles are all still there, but the stakes are even maybe a little bit higher. Your residents and their families put their trust in you and your company to take care of them. Seniors are often perceived as a vulnerable population and if your organization or company isn’t treating them with enough respect, or you aren’t taking ownership, or if there’s a perception that you’re trying to pass the blame, it’s not going to end well for you. When your business is caring for people, you have to live that mission out in all that you do–especially in times of crisis. The residents really have to be top priority, and that really has to be evident in the way that you handle your crisis.

CC: I really liked that you talked about perception, Kayla, because perception is reality, and I think we all can relate to how we all feel when something like the United incident, for example, tries to brush it off and place blame and just isn’t taking responsibility or ownership for what happens. I can certainly see how that would relate to someone’s life. You know, there are people living in these communities, and their adult children are always making sure that they’re safe and they’re enjoying their life–so that makes total sense, I like the analogy there.

KC: Yeah, it’s just so key. You know, technically United was within their guidelines and their policies, but even if it’s within your policies is it the right thing to do? And that’s I think the bar that we need to hold ourselves to–especially in senior living. Regardless of the policy, what is the right thing to do in that moment for that resident?

CC: Exactly. So that brings us to our next question, what’s the right thing to do and what should be the first step that communities take to create an effective crisis communication plan, then?

KC: One of the first steps that I would say you should do is sit down and think about who are your audiences? In a crisis, you’re going to have to talk to a variety of groups of people: employees and residents, those are going to be your most obvious groups, but think a little beyond that. So what crises would involve the families of residents? What about neighboring businesses or individuals? Could the public be involved in the crisis? Could your board of directors be involved? Create a list of any audiences that you can think of and what types of crises they could be impacted by, and then think about how you’re going to communicate to them. For employees, maybe you have an internal email list–how are you going to get things out to residents? How are you going to communicate publicly? That helps you identify how; how will you get your message out? Make sure that you’re covering all your potential audiences because it’s never enough to communicate just to employees or just to residents. One, because anything you share will most likely end up on social media or spreading through word of mouth, so you want to make sure that you have the messaging prepared and the audiences identified so that you can communicate effectively and efficiently to these different stakeholders.

CC: So, Kayla, depending on what the crisis may be, your audiences could be different, so is it fair to say that you should just rely on one first step in every crisis where you should stop and identify your audience in each separate situation?

KC: Yeah, I think it’s really smart to do that. I think that if there’s a public safety issue; some of our communities are located near a school, so what if there’s a lockdown at the school? It’s not happening at your community, but if they have an active shooter situation or they have someone on their campus that shouldn’t be on the school campus, and your community is right next door, well, that could affect you; that’s a potential crisis. So who are your primary audiences there? You want to make sure that your employees are safe, you want to make sure that your residents are safe. So, what communications do you need to get out to them?

CC: That’s a good point because sometimes your crisis may be external. It could be an internal crisis or it could be an external crisis, so I think that’s a good point to make.

KC: Right, you know, crises can come from any angle at any time. That’s part of what makes dealing with them so challenging; it’s not going to be the same thing twice, so you have to prepare for a bunch of different scenarios and then be able to pull the pieces together to treat and talk about your specific situation that you find yourselves in.

CC: Good point. Okay, so, who should be the spokesperson for a community during a crisis? And should there be a process in place for how the statements are drafted and released?

KC: Definitely. So your spokesperson; you want there to be one spokesperson. Your team, your employees, should all recognize that it is not their role to speak to the media. And if the media were to come to them, they need to know who they should put the media in contact with because one of the last things you want to happen is for your employees to say something to the media that’s quoted that maybe isn’t true or maybe isn’t the full picture. So, I think educating your employees on who the spokesperson is and what steps to take when, or if, media were to contact them is a good first step. So then, who should your spokesperson be? You’ll want to identify one person primarily–usually it’s your CEO or your executive director. If they’re not available, typically you want to go with the highest-ranking member of your staff who is available because they lend additional authority to statements that are being made.

So the process for reviewing statements… There’s definitely a process. The first thing you’ll want to do is–so let’s say, in this scenario you’re getting contacted by the media and they say, “hey, we have this story and we heard X, Y and Z.” So, okay, the employee who gets the call tells the appropriate person, you get your team together–your executive team or your risk management team–and then you go on a fact-finding mission. What the media heard: is it true? Is it the whole truth? What exactly happened? Do you have anything documented? Is there anything that maybe the media doesn’t know yet but will most likely come out? So once you have all of the facts, that’s when you start drafting your statement. In this one you only want to include your actual solid facts; you don’t want to include anything that you’re guessing at, you don’t want to include rumors–just the facts. Talk about what happened, how it happened; if you know what steps are being taken to correct it, include those. Then, once you’ve drafted your statement, your internal team will review it, and then, if necessary, your legal team might need to review it. You’ll want your communications director, or if you have an agency that you’re working with they should definitely be looped in. And depending on the type of crisis, you may also want your board of directors or your director of nursing, or someone in your healthcare to look at the statement as well. Then, you give your statement to your spokesperson. Ideally, your spokesperson hasn’t been involved in the fact-finding, so that way they don’t hear any rumors or anything they don’t know to be true. All that they get is the actual statement.

CC: Good, good. So I know you talked about the legal part of it, but when should your legal team be brought into that process?

KC: You know, that will have to be a bit of a judgement call on each crisis. If there are legal implications, you definitely want them involved because you don’t want to say something that you shouldn’t be saying. Just like if there’s an active shooter situation, you’ll want the police who are working the situation to review your statement because you don’t want to release any information that the police are not willing to have released at that time. So, it kind of has to be a judgement call. The caution I would state, though, is have legal review it, but try not to let them wordsmith it too much. I think what can happen is that if legal gets ahold of a statement, they do their job. Their job is risk management (that is what they do best) but we don’t want the statement to become something that doesn’t connect on a human level, or something that’s filled with corporate-speak or legalease. Back to that United first nonapology that the CEO released–that was very much, in my opinion, that was a team of legal speaking. It wasn’t a human reaction, and because of that it rang inauthentic and it got a lot more pushback.

CC: It certainly did not feel, like you said, humane. It did seem like it was more coming from a legal perspective, so that’s a good strategy to just kind of be aware of; [look at] what the situation is and gauge that on how and when your legal team should be involved. So, let’s talk about the communication channels that a community could utilize in the midst of a crisis, and then some different methods that might be used for different situations or different audiences.

KC: Sure. So, there are some different scenarios here. If you have reporters on site, you’re going to want to set up a pressroom. Keep your press in one area, if possible. So if you’re going to be communicating to the press–probably on live updates–you’ll be sending your spokesperson in on a set schedule to communicate any updates. You’ll also, of course, want to address social media. I would recommend that you focus on one social media account instead of trying to update all of them and your website. I typically recommend Facebook because it usually has the largest audience and it also does not have the character limits that Twitter has. So with Twitter you’re kind of locked into that 140 characters, but on Facebook you can provide your updates in a longer form, and then also you can edit your posts and update. And as long as you’re clear and saying, “Edit: we’re adding this information, here’s our timestamp,” it keeps everything that you’re releasing in one place instead of creating a thread of tweets on Twitter. So that kind of takes care of the public. Then you’ll need to think about how you’re addressing your employees. Do you have an all-staff email system in place? Is there a way for you to email every member of staff? Do you have an emergency texting program set up? Some places I’ve worked have had that, where you can send out a mass text to all of your employees. Whatever your channels are, you just need to keep in mind that as soon as you send something to all staff, it’s as good as public knowledge–especially if it’s written down. So keep in mind that when you’re sending something out via email it’s incredibly easy to take a screenshot and to then upload that to social media. So anything you send out to any audience needs to be considered that you’re going on public record with. Those are the main ways that I would recommend; you have your in-person with your media, you may have to make phone calls with media, you may have to have emails–just depending on what the crisis is and if you have media on site or not.

CC: Okay, great! Thank you. So, after identifying the communication channels that will be used in a crisis, it seems like it would be a good idea to keep a master list of all the login information for a community’s different accounts. What’s the best way to preserve and manage that list, and who would you recommend have access to this?

KC: Yeah, you definitely want a list because maybe your director of marketing is on a great cruise somewhere and doesn’t have cell service, and you don’t want them to be the only one who can access your digital accounts. So we recommend keeping a paper list in with your emergency management plan because that’s the binder that you’re going to pull out during an emergency. So having that updated list there, whoever’s on site in your crisis management team will be able to access the account. You could also have the account with your agency if you’re working with an agency. You could consider having one with your CEO or with your executive director. And then you’ll want to make sure that that’s updated at least annually, but definitely if there’s a staffing change in the marketing department or in the executive team. You’ll want to make sure that it’s up to date and you have the most up to date information. If your organization decides to branch out into a new social media avenue, make sure that information is in there. That can kind of be the responsibility of your marketing director and as they pursue new opportunities and new channels, to make sure that that list is up to date.

CC: That’s a good point, because a lot of times people just don’t always make time to do that and then they find that when they really need the information, it’s not updated and that can cause a little bit of a panic, and we’d like to avoid that.

KC: And part of (I think) the benefit in having an agency that you’re working with on this is then they have it off-site. So let’s say, if the crisis is on campus and you can’t get into wherever your emergency plans are kept, if you have an off-site agency then they also have a list of all of your accounts and they can access them, and you can work with your agency to post updates.

CC: Yes. So let’s just talk now about how to effectively manage the local media coverage in a crisis. I know that’s not always easy; it takes special talent. So how can you give some advice on that, Kayla?

KC: Sure. So, what you’ll want to do first is before the crisis, you’ll want to do a few things. You’ll want to create a local media list. Who is in your town, who is the most likely to come knocking, who covers your area, and who are you familiar with? Who has been covering your stuff in the past? Create that list so that if there is a crisis and you need to get a message out, you at least have a starting point of five or ten or 20 reports that you know you can send it to, to get [the community’s] message out. You’ll also want to identify a media room in case there are media on site. You’ll, ideally, want this to be a room with a door so you can kind of ask the media to stay within that one enclosed area. Ideally, you don’t want the media walking around campus talking to whomever they can find, so if you ask them to set up in a room, you can then set up a microphone or podium, that’s where you can do your press briefings. So once you have those two things kind of set up, you have your spokesperson identified, and let’s say you are in the crisis and you have media on site, you’ve drafted a statement and it’s ready to go out. You then hand your statement to your spokesperson, they go into the media room and they make the statement. So some keys here: you want to make sure you’re addressing all of the media that’s present, you don’t want to favor one media outlet or one journalist or one type of media over another–it should be a group statement. If you aren’t accepting questions, make sure you say that up front. Say, “We’re not accepting questions at this time,” and then the spokesperson can’t allow themselves to be badgered into providing answers to questions. They have to be comfortable and confident enough to just continue walking away. If you know when you will be accepting questions or when your next update is, be very clear about that. Provide your statement and then say, “We will return in a half hour or 45 minutes to provide an update and we will be taking questions at that time.” But once you give a time frame, you have to stick to it. If you say, “We’ll come out in a half hour for the next update,” you have to go back out in a half hour–even if your update is simply “We don’t have any more news at this time,” or “We don’t have any more information at this time.” So those are kind of some of the keys for handling the media when you don’t have questions. Now, if you are planning to accept questions, you’ll want to make sure that you aren’t speculating. Don’t provide a ten-word answer when a two-word answer will do. Don’t go off the record because there’s no such thing. Don’t answer hypotheticals, don’t speculate. Just stick to the facts, as you know them, and don’t go too far beyond that.

CC: Okay! Thank you. So, you talked a little bit about having an outside firm help, but why should communities consider partnering with an outside firm? You mentioned a few points, but I know that there have to be a few other really good reasons why that should happen. So let’s talk a little bit more about that.

KC: I think it’s important to consider partnering with an outside firm for a variety of reasons, including the fact that there aren’t many people who specialize in crisis communications. Typically, your on site staff wear a ton of hats and many of them have taken a crisis communications course at some point and they have a basic knowledge, but really in the moment, when you are handling a crisis, you want to be with the best you can. And a lot of times that specialized knowledge and that specialized experience falls to an agency. So I think it’s really important to work with a team who understands how to help guide you so that you’re making the ethical choices and you’re communicating clearly, that you are sticking to your plan for when you’re going to release information and what you should be saying; this is someone who can help guide the way and help prevent some of the mishaps that we see far too often on social media.

CC: And that’s exactly what you’re doing with the clients that you’re working with: providing that support and helping to write those comments. So I think having someone with experience and knowing how to sit down and create a plan–when it might take someone who maybe has never had to deal with a crisis before hours to come up with the right language–can be wildly important.

KC: Right. Especially because in a crisis you are always on a time crunch, so from the first media contact [that contacts you], you should respond within an hour. And if you don’t know what steps to take, a good part of that hour might be spent figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing next, whereas an outside firm can come in and say, “Okay, here’s what you need to do, here’s the information I need,” and then they can help you get that statement drafted. It can also help if there’s an on site crisis, when it could be beneficial to have someone off site. If your power goes out, if you’re in the middle of some sort of scenario where maybe there’s a natural disaster or something like that, your firm may be far enough away that they may not be affected to the same degree, so they can still post updates, they can get the information out there that you need out there—even if your Internet is down or if you are locked out of your office and you can’t access your computer, the outside firm will have access to make the updates on your behalf. It’s a bit of a fail-safe.

CC: Exactly. So, how often should a community review their crisis communication plan?

KC: You know, I would say that it should be done at least annually. Kind of the same as we were looking at when to update your logins list; it should be done annually or at the same time that you review the rest of your emergency management plan. If there’s a major change in staffing, if you have new technology, if you’re offering a new service line, make sure that it’s up to date because as part of a good crisis communications plan [you should] outline who needs to be in the room when you’re making the decision on what the statement will be. So if you offer a new service line and then you have a crisis in that service line, it’s better to have it on paper that “yes” the head of the service line needs to be in the room because in a crisis when things are moving quick, it’s too easy to look over details like that.

CC: Right, right. So I know that you have given us quite a lot of tidbits of advice, but in wrapping things up, what is the one piece of advice that you can give to senior living providers who either don’t have a crisis communications plan in place, or are considering reevaluating their current plan?

KC: Well, if they don’t have one, I would say you definitely need to get one. Whether you’re developing that in-house, or if you reach out to a firm or agency to try and get some help with that, you want something in place to make sure that you’re ready. And if you are considering reevaluating, I would say go ahead and do it. When was the last time you checked it out? Were you using social media to the same extent the last time you drafted your plan? It’s never too soon, in my opinion, to look at it again and make sure that it’s up to date. And then, as you’re looking at it, just make sure you’re asking yourself, “Does this plan allow me to tell the truth, to tell it fast, and to tell it in a human and empathetic way?”


If you would like to learn more about Love & Company’s customized crisis communication plans, please call Tim Bracken at 410-207-0013 or Rick Hunsicker at 214-906-3801.

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