Crisis Management: It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish

One of the most important things a public relations advisor can do during a crisis is to help leadership keep a long-term perspective.

It’s not unusual for the negative publicity and intense scrutiny from the outside that often occurs during a crisis to be accompanied by a creeping sense of panic over loss of control and concern about what might happen next.

Sometimes a crisis is created by an opposing special-interest group that wants to stir up trouble and put the organization on the defensive. With the advantage of surprise, the group then continues to pour kerosene on the various fires it has set. Typically, the organization is caught off guard and forced to divert resources to fight these fires.

More times than not the result is a siege mentality and short-term focus, which only makes the situation worse (and plays into the hands of the opposition).

But, as cosmetics giant Mary Kay, Inc. emphasizes to its millions of independent beauty consultants worldwide, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

Patience, not panic, will help an organization finish well in a crisis.

Here’s an example of how ad agency PR can make a big difference in helping clients successfully overcome short-term pain and enjoy long-term gain.

The agency where I worked prior to staring my own firm had a health care client that owned a medical center in the western part of the U.S. Out of the blue one day, the local paper ran a very damaging and misleading front-page story titled “Worried hospital employees seek help from union.”

The local Teamster’s Union had been attempting to organize the medical center’s employees through a series of meetings, so an “issue” had already raised its head. In spite of this red flag, no one in leadership at the medical center was expecting an article like this, which raised serious charges about patient safety, employee morale and overall quality of care.

Photo of Teamster's Union rep

The medical center’s marketing director contacted me the day the article appeared, asking for strategic counsel and help in formulating a response to the numerous accusations that had been made in the paper.

Our objectives were threefold:

  • Persuade employees to reject unionization
  • Motivate employees to lead the charge against the inaccurate reporting
  • Restore the community’s confidence in the medical center

Based on information obtained through some quick research, our agency developed a letter for medical center employees, a list of erroneous statements with corrective facts and a guest column bylined by the medical center’s CEO. We also recommended an in-person meeting between the center’s CEO and marketing director, and the paper’s editor and the reporter who wrote the story.

The list of erroneous statements, with corrective facts, was used in that meeting to make sure all salient points were covered and that the meeting stayed on track.

The meeting was a success and resulted in a front-page story titled “Staff defends hospital; refutes claims of compromised care.” In addition, a guest column by the CEO titled “Hospital takes health care seriously” also ran in the editorial section.

Supervisors gave the informational letter to employees, and then were available to answer questions they may have. With the facts in hand, employees were more effective in responding to questions they were getting from friends and neighbors. Corrective information also was provided to the community’s lone talk radio station.

A group of employees, through their own initiative, met separately with the paper, while others called or sent letters to the editor. Employees felt their competence had been attacked by the union, and they were a major factor in successfully delivering the message to the community that such attacks were untrue and totally unjustified.

According the medical center’s marketing director:

The union’s attempt to get the paper involved backfired due to the outpouring  of support the hospital received from our employees and the community.”

The most significant result, however, was the fact that union activity ceased after the medical center’s public response. Patient levels, which dropped dramatically after the first hit-piece article was published, quickly returned to normal.

The center’s rapid response also helped contain the story to the community, and more than a year after the incident there had been no further attempts to unionize the center by the Teamsters or any other union.

Not every crisis has this quick a turnaround—or as successful an ending—but the principle remains the same: Keep the long-term in view because the storm will eventually pass.

photo credit: Jagz Mario via photopin cc

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