GP practices – although contracted – serve the general population and, as such, are also subject to the scrutiny and whims of that general population. A disgruntled patient airing their issues in the public arena can be to the detriment of your practice’s reputation so, when the heat is on, how best can you handle a PR crisis?
What would you do if your practice was dragged into a public relations crisis? Is there a PR crisis communication plan in place or would you ‘wing it’ when exposed the bright light of the media spotlight? PR crises seem to come out of the blue and can cause some of the most stressful times a practice can face; but most crises can be anticipated, in general terms, and plans can be put in place to mitigate their impact.
What can you do to prepare, and how do you handle an actual crisis? It is imperative that you have crisis plans in place; these plans should include communications and you should have a few members of your practice’s senior team on hand to assist and support.
- Establish the facts
It is essential that you establish the facts and ask the right questions; you cannot create a defence built on half-truths. The first thing to ask is simply: what is the crisis? This will help you to get to the core of the issue. From here you can identify the who, how, where and when of the incident in question. This information will be essential to the action you choose to take, how the crisis is managed and any subsequent communications.
- Crisis plans to include communications
Ensure your crisis plans include communications and have a member of your practice’s senior team with access to social media passwords ready to handle – or mediate – online criticism. In most cases, no comment is not an option – it suggests that there may be something to hide!
Agree a strategy and draw up a communications plan to cover, as examples:
- communications with all practice partners and any other key stakeholders – for example, if you are part of a federation, etc;
- preparing media statements to cover various options – including Q&A which can also be used for practice staff;
- handling media questions and rehearsing interviews;
- communicating with patients – letters, social media, a meeting, etc.;
- staff – who should be told just before it goes public – and advise how to handle typical questions;
- you want your local authority and politicians on board so get their support ahead of announcements;
- personal communications to those who use your facilities and to partners;
- social media channels – however much you hope to ‘control’ the message and process of getting it out, accept that, as soon as the news goes public, the public may post something on Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms.
Plan the order of your communications ruthlessly. Think through who must know first and set up a communications’ process for this all to happen within minutes or hours of each other – so, for example, you might have a staff meeting in progress while letters are being emailed (or texted) to patients.
Be available to handle calls or meetings as requested – don’t stint on this time.
- Monitor your practice across all media types
If you’re not doing so already, set up ‘brand monitoring’ for your practice’s name, those of your lead practitioners and anyone else who may be involved in the crisis. By monitoring your practice during the PR crisis, you can react as appropriate and in a timely manner. Good ways to monitor practice mentions are Google news, Google alerts, via Twitter (hopefully you won’t be a trending hashtag!), etc.
- Post on your website
Know that anything you send out will probably appear as a photo on social media; statements, letters to patients and other communications should be posted on your website.
A media statement – or press release – can be invaluable and will help give you a voice by establishing (and disseminating) the facts for the media, the public, your patients and any other relevant stakeholders. Failure to provide facts means there are more blanks that can be filled in by idle chat and hearsay.
- Be transparent and honest
You have had a crisis – don’t make it worse by hiding or lying about any aspect. How many times have cover-ups of scandals become bigger than the original story?