Crisis management for nursing homes

The article below was published in Issue 48 of Care Home Management, March/April 2015.

In our September/October 2014 edition we looked at communications training and the importance of presenting your care home in the best possible light. But what happens when a serious crisis hits you? Terence Fane-Saunders is chairman of international public relations firm, Chelgate, who offer a range of services, including reputation management and protection and crisis management. Here he considers what to do when that crisis strikes.

Things go wrong. That’s a rule. No organisation is immune. But if no organisation is immune, care homes are more vulnerable than most, not just to things going wrong, but to things seeming to go wrong. And sometimes, frighteningly, false perceptions can be more powerful than the facts.

Politically, care, health and the elderly are all hot buttons, and care homes can push all three together. And then there’s the media. They know that a care home story can be rich in human interest, perhaps shocking, often moving, and sells papers. There may be scope for outrage, too, and they do love that.

“We have worked on two assignments recently where a key factor was not the seriousness of an injury itself, but just how horrible it looked in photographs.”

There is also the grim fact that an injury to an elderly person can look particularly shocking. So, for example, if an elderly person loses their balance and strikes their face on something, the bruising and apparent damage can be very distressing to see – even if the underlying injury is in fact quite slight. We have worked on two assignments recently where a key factor was not the seriousness of an injury, but just how horrible it looked in photographs.

For many businesses the real PR threat is posed by the national media. Stories that don’t make it past the locals aren’t big enough, or shocking enough, to do much damage. But for care homes, that can be quite different. They are very much of their community. A local media scandal can do huge and lasting damage. And one of the problems with a local scandal is that the media, also, are close to the community. So they find it relatively easy to find contacts to comment, and to feed them rumour and gossip.

“…most of the hard work can and should be done before the crisis ever strikes.”

So, if a crisis does hit, what should you do? The answer is, go to work before it hits. It’s a basic rule of crisis management that most of the hard work can and should be done before the crisis ever strikes.

If you don’t have a proper crisis plan in place, then make one. When we audit clients’ crisis plans and procedures, it constantly amazes me how many well-run operations have no crisis plan at all. The reason, all too often, is that they seem to think it’s an admission of weakness, planning for things to go wrong. But that’s not sensible. Things go wrong. Sometimes badly. And it may not be your fault at all. But if you haven’t prepared, then you won’t be equipped to respond.

“The crisis that strikes will always be the one you didn’t expect.”

Don’t plan against likely scenarios. The crisis that strikes will always be the one you didn’t expect. But test your system using scenarios.

When we create crisis planning management systems for clients, the first task is always to designate the crisis team members, assign responsibilities, and make sure they are trained to carry them out. Then identify key ‘publics’ where reputation and relationship matters most. And we make sure that they have contact details, 24/7. And that’s not just during working hours, because crises aren’t like shift workers. They don’t keep regular hours!

Other basic rules of crisis planning are to control the narrative, becoming the primary source of trusted information about your own story. If you refuse to communicate, others will fill the vacuum, and they won’t have your interests at heart. And be truthful, frank and honest. If you are not, you will lose credibility, and without trust and credibility, in terms of crisis management, you’re dead.

Finally, remember that blame tends to attach not to the fact that something went wrong, but to the fact that you mishandled putting it right. There are many cases where people have responded to crises so well that, when all is calm again, their reputations have actually blossomed. There’s no reason why that shouldn’t apply to you.

For more information on how we can help you with effective crisis planning please click here