Ready. Fire. Aim. That’s how too many EMS agencies handle a crisis. They respond before they know what their message is, and they end up saying the wrong thing to the wrong audience. It’s easier if you plan for a crisis in advance so you can execute your strategy when needed, but a lot of EMS agencies find themselves unprepared during an emergency. For this four-part blog series, let’s focus on four topics of what to do after the crisis has already started.
- Part 1: Simplify & Clarify Your Message
- Part 2: Internal Communication (i.e. to staff, investors, etc.)
- Part 3: Communicating with Impacted Patients & Partner Agencies
- Part 4: External Communications with Reporters & the Public
Let’s jump right in to Part 1, shall we?
Two Most Common Mistakes by EMS Agencies during a Crisis
When a crisis occurs, EMS agencies tend to make one of two opposite, but equally painful, mistakes. One mistake is being too afraid to say anything at all, and by taking too long to respond the agency fails to stop the bleeding before the damage is complete. A quick acknowledgement and action by the agency is essential to ending a crisis. The more news cycles the agency waits to show they care and are trying to fix the problem, the worse it will be.
The other mistake is speaking too quickly without an organized strategy or a designated spokesman from whom all statements will be controlled and consistent. An agency can look pretty bad when different spokesmen contradict one another. It only leads to more confusion and issues to resolve. It also looks horrible when a statement is made, but only hours or days later the agency needs to backtrack because the desired message or strategy has changed.
Both of these mistakes (and the inconsistencies they create) aren’t because of ineptitude by any individuals. Rather, it’s simply a lack of a simple message and simple direction from the top. In the middle of a media crisis, it’s too late to form a committee and discuss options. Leadership needs to act quickly to calm the storm, but clarity and consistency is also needed.
Quickly Pick a Few Core Messages
One of the first things EMS leadership need to quickly decide are a few core message points from which all statements and actions will revolve around – no matter who is speaking or listening. The key is clarity and direction. The statement should clearly and simply state what the agency is focused on during the crisis, and what the agency will do after the initial crisis is over.
For example, say your healthcare organization has a major HIPPA violation. An example of your core message points may be:
- We will take care of our patients impacted by the violation
- We will investigate and take action where appropriate
- We will redouble all efforts to prevent any future similar violation
The first statement, to take care of the patients impacted, is something employees can start doing immediately. The second statement lets internal teams know they need to investigate what happened and the third statement instructs employees to figure out if anything needs to change internally to make sure such a violation doesn’t occur again.
These statements may not seem deep, but they’re powerful. They’re a promise allowing all parties, internal and external, to set their expectation. They become the mile markers for which the overall response can be judged.
They also let those who are impacted, the public in general and the media know the agency cares and is working on proper resolutions. It’s hard to hate someone that’s trying to help. It may not stop anger or fear, but there’s comfort in knowing the issue isn’t being ignored, and the agency has a plan of what to do to fix it.
To agency spokesmen, it gives clear statements to convey to anyone that will listen. The statements are general enough that they can be given quickly to media, even before all the facts are known. It shows that the EMS agency isn’t ignoring the crisis, or the anger or fear it might create. It shows the agency cares. It also creates a clear path to show the public in the future that the agency followed through on its commitment, wherever that path might lead.
These simple, but direct statements, also give internal guidance to employees on how they are supposed proceed in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. It also points in the direction where the light at the tunnel will (eventually) appear.
The Result? Protecting Your EMS Agency’s Brand
Ultimately, during any crisis there are a lot of details and nuance that to insiders seem important. As leadership, you need that info to evaluate the details and decide how to fix the problem, but these details aren’t important to the general public. From a message and direction standpoint, the best thing an agency can do to protect its brand image and minimize the damage is to simplify and clarify the goals into a statement that is easy for everyone to understand and rally around.