When things go wrong, keeping quiet isn’t an option. What you say, and how you say it, are the key to safeguarding your reputation. In this blog, Highland Marketing’s co-founder, Mark Venables, looks at communicating in a crisis.
The thing with crises is that they’re sudden, unexpected, and not under your control. You
think it’ll never happen to you, then you’re part of the news cycle – and not in a good way.
In our sector, problems are pretty much inevitable. Think about it. Healthcare technology is
Innovation means that you’re often dealing with first of type systems. No matter how well
you’ve laid the ground, nothing fully prepares you for the moment when a customer goes
live with a new system.
You’re also probably dependent on third parties, either for core technologies or to provide
interfaces and data. They have all the same problems as you do, so you may suffer collateral
Then there’s malign cyber-attacks, which can take down even the most carefully planned
and monitored installation.
If something happens, your fault or not, it’s still your problem.
To use the jargon, healthcare technology is “mission critical”. At best, system trouble means
administrative delays, extra work, and regulatory scrutiny. At worst, it means serious clinical
risk. There’s ample scope for even a minor problem to compound into a full-blown crisis.
The dangers are clear. Product rejection, reputational damage, and ultimately business
failure. Worse is the clinical risk impacting customers and ultimately patients.
It would be fair to say that in this business, boring and reliable are selling features.
Our sector is highly visible. Everyone is interested in healthcare, and most people in the
audience have an opinion about technology. Journalists and commentators are looking for
something to fill column inches and schadenfreude makes for easy stories.
You can’t hide, and saying nothing isn’t a good option. If you don’t comment, someone else
will, and they won’t have your best interests at heart. Social media means news travels fast,
and bad news travels fastest.
Over the years we’ve worked with clients to help them understand risk, plan for the
unexpected, and respond rapidly. This is what we’ve learned.
This one seems obvious, but surprisingly few people get round to doing it. When you’re
focused on making healthcare better, you don’t worry too much about what happens when
you make it worse.
Keep a register of the risks you face and monitor the situation constantly. Asking the
question, “what could possibly go wrong”, is a fundamental skill for project leaders,
implementation specialists, and senior leadership.
Know your plan in the event of a problem. You need to identify your overall crisis lead and
give them the time to draw up a plan. You also need to know who handles communication
and make sure they’re trained to deal with the media.
It’s also essential to build good relationships with people who have influence in the
environment you’re operating in. This could be journalists, policy makers, or customers.
Having credit in the reputation bank means you have allies to call on when times get tough.
There’s a cliché amongst communicators that your reputation is built on how you cope with
the tough stuff. Some people believe that a strong response in a difficult situation can
actually enhance your standing with customers, prospects and influencers.
It’s not a theory I’d want to test to destruction but getting out in front of problem makes
People who do crisis management well are available, open, and empathetic. Of course, this
doesn’t mean you should blow up minor problems into crises just to show that you care.
What it does mean is that, when the worst happens, you need to be in control, move
rapidly, and demonstrate your commitment to finding a resolution. You also need to be
there, on the ground, with reassuring actions.
Perhaps the most difficult thing is accepting the problem and taking responsibility. We all of
us suffer a bit from hubris and, when you’re innovating, there’s a tendency to believe your
Going against an old adage, in crisis management, always apologise and always explain. This
isn’t weakness, it’s honesty and empathy. Stuff happens and, if it’s your fault, you need to
deal with it. This doesn’t mean empty apologies of the, “sorry you think you’ve had a bad
time” type. It means being clear about the problem, explaining the causes in a way that
makes sense to your audience, and setting out an action plan.
Of course, the real solution is resolving the problem or providing sensible workarounds.
Good crisis communications can prevent damage to your reputation. Fixing, a problem can
genuinely enhance your standing with a client.
If this seems like a lot of time and effort, think of it this way, it’s all common-sense business
practice, just like insurance.
Even if nothing goes wrong, the thinking and preparation means you’ll deliver a better
service for your customers, and a better working life for your people.
One thing you do need to consider though is what support you need.
Dealing with a crisis isn’t business as usual, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s likely you’ll need
help, be that expert counsel, strategic messaging, or someone to handle tactical
communications. One communicator I know always asks agencies who would be available to
advise the CEO if something nasty happened on a Sunday afternoon.
Crisis planning and communication is one of the services we offer at Highland Marketing.
Get in touch. We’d be happy to talk it through with you, even on a Sunday.