How to Communicate Effectively During a Crisis

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During a crisis like a health scare or natural disaster, it’s often the job of marketers to communicate to patients, staff, vendors, partners, and the community at large. 

Like anything, it’s a lot harder to do your job without any sort of plan or guidelines in place, but you aren’t alone. In fact, according to a recent survey from Deloitte, the multinational professional services network, only 49% of board members say their companies have playbooks for likely crisis scenarios

Read on for some top-level strategic crisis communication tips and actionable tactics to consider when steering your medical practice messaging through a less than ideal situation.

Things to Remember 

A good crisis communication plan cannot be copied and pasted. There are factors specific to your medical practice, and the emergency you’re dealing with that are required to be factored into your plan. That said, your plan should include:

  • Steps to take when the crisis first emerges 
  • How and when to communicate with internal and external audiences 
  • Strategies to prevent the incident or improve response if unavoidable 

So, when it comes to planning for an emergency like a natural disaster or mass shooting (something a lot of us may have more experience in than we would ever want), here’s what to consider doing to create and implement your crisis communication plan. 

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Be Honest & Intentional with Your Communication 

If there was ever a time to remove all the fluff from your marketing communication, it’s now. Be honest and get to the point – fast. Whether it’s with employees or patients, define your message, update it as needed, but do not lie about what’s going on. 

According to CEO Magazine, honesty is considered to be the single most important leadership value, and if you aren’t truthful in your communications here, it will come back to haunt you. 

How can you be intentional about what you want to say and how you want to say it? Practice. 

Create a list of possible scenarios and write out how you would respond to each of them. What are the messages you would use? How would you communicate your key points to stakeholders? Media? Staff? Patients? You’ll need an answer for each. 

It may also be helpful to involve other key leadership here as you draft these scenarios, and you may even want to incorporate protocols or drills into your workflow throughout the year. 

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Define Roles and Expectations

Once you have some of your key messages outlined, it’s time to create an organizational chart. In other words, determine what and who is expected to step up when a crisis does hit. And, when that person isn’t available, who is next in line?  

First, establish a point of contact for your crisis management team (CMT) and use whatever internal communication methods you have to get the message out to your staff that John Smith is the point of contact, and these are the talking points if asked. 

WorldAware.com says a CMT lead is responsible for developing, implementing, administering, evaluating, and maintaining the entire program.

Reach your team by email, a bulletin board in a break room, intranet, word of mouth, memos, smoke signals – whatever you can do internally to let people in your organization know what they should be saying and what they should expect in terms of their jobs and disruptions to their day-to-day lives. You may also want your CMT to be in charge of the external communication as well because depending on what sort of disaster or crisis you’re dealing with, there are potential media, vendors, partners, and patients are all going to be affected.

If you’re a larger practice, you may want to consider putting together a full committee or emergency response team instead of just one lead or a few top managers. In this scenario, each of the large departments at your practice has a representative so they can communicate to their teams and so forth.

Then, depending on the level of the emergency you’re dealing with, you can activate the team and do a weekly, daily or hourly meeting depending on severity, even if it’s just 5-minutes on the phone to ensure everyone is on the same page.  

Who should be part of the team? Consider involving a few select physician partners, branch location managers, administrators, and managers and, if you’re not the marketing person, make sure someone from the marketing team is involved because they may be the ones communicating the information to patients, partners, and media. 

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Develop Messaging 

When it comes to writing your message, who is doing that, and what are they saying? Who is approving the message? These should be part of the organizational chart mentioned earlier.

Above all, make sure your message is consistent across all platforms and mediums. There is no time for a brand personality here – just get to the point and provide what updates you need in regard to office closures, health updates, damage estimates – whatever the case may be. 

TheMuse suggests developing your all-purpose response or “holding statement” in advance to get through initial inquiries from stakeholders, journalists, and patients. 

Key talking points will vary widely depending on the emergency, by trying to keep it to no more than three points you want to drive home. Ideally, it will be just one message you can continue to use that is easy to remember for your spokespeople and your staff. 

Each message should be consistent, informative, honest, and sympathetic to those affected if applicable.

Remember that having a plan in place may help here as well if you know what the messaging will be in each scenario. Being able to confidently know we’re going from “point A” which leads to “point B” and creates a divergent path at “point C” can mitigate losses in the short-term and long-term. It will also allow you to pivot and focus on other fires as they pop up, pardon the pun.  

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Tactics and Adjustments 

Once you have your messaging, your CMT lead, and your organizational chart, it’s time to make adjustments and get the word out to your patients and staff. 

Of course, every case is unique, but consider how the lives of employees, patients, and the community-at-large are going to be affected and what that may due to the office, directly or indirectly. 

  • Directly: There was a tornado, and one of the offices is unable to re-open while it’s undergoing repairs 
  • Indirectly: There was a tornado, and the local elementary school is unable to open while it’s undergoing repairs 

Note that the indirect emergency can still result in clinic disruptions as suddenly front desk employees or MAs have to stay home to care for their children, or there will be an influx of canceled appointments as parents have to do the same. This is a rudimentary example, but the point is an emergency can have far-reaching consequences that impact your office in ways you may not expect, resulting in a need to adjust or pivot your response. 

Website Updates

Consider adding a persistent red bar at the top of your website, so your emergency message is on every page of the site. Make the message a clickable link that sends users to a blog with more details about what’s going on, how they’re impacted, and what is being done to fix it. 

Now, of course, it doesn’t have to be red, but usually, that contrast is bright enough to grab someone’s attention and they innately know it’s an alert of some kind. 

Take your messaging and any appropriate updates and create a blog post as well so you can link to it from your persistent red bar and your social channels as well, letting your followers know the latest developments—more on that in a second.

Directory Listings 

One area that sometimes gets overlooked is your directory listings, especially your Google My Business pages. You want to make sure that if you’re closed, those directory listings say you’re closed. You can also link directly back to your emergency plans or that page with the most updated information on your website. 

If you have your directory listings claimed or you’re using some sort of online reputation management system, have whoever it is that manages that for you go into those directory databases and update your information. Then, when things are back to normal, they can go back in and change it relatively easy as well. 

Social Media

In a lot of cases, patients and community members won’t be looking at your website unless they had a reason to, like an upcoming appointment. However, they are looking at social media, so whenever possible, consider having an arsenal of posts with images ready to go as well. 

Obviously, you want to be sensitive to what’s going on in the community with your messaging but use and leverage your social media channels to really reach people quickly, because we all know you can create a Facebook post a lot faster than you can update the website. Plus, your followers are then able to share and comment on that information, and you can become a real resource for them versus them just reading the content on your website. 

Oh, and consider pausing all of your regularly scheduled social media posts. No one cares about your Hydrafacial special when they don’t have power at their house. 

Joking aside, be cautious with what you’re putting out there if it’s a sensitive time for your immediate area. If you have posts scheduled on autopilot, it’s a good idea to look at those items and turn them off. 

In-office Signage

Another area that can be overlooked is really easy and inexpensive: create some in-office signage. It doesn’t have to be professional. Put something on a Word document and make sure it’s legible, and it has big text so you can get your message out to patients and staff in waiting rooms if it makes sense. Use this as another opportunity to communicate. 

Sometimes we think everybody likes electronic communication, but if their power is off or if they’re stressed out and they have too many messages on their phones, sometimes it’s good to have a sign in the back of the stall in the toilet and somewhere where you know they’re going to be paying attention.

This is especially useful if you have multiple locations. If one location is impacted, but the other five are not, then you can put up these signs in the other five to let people know that the downtown or the main office is closed, but that you’re working on getting it open as soon as possible. If you know someone that has an appointment there, you’re working on getting them scheduled into other offices, et cetera. Again, it’s just an easy way to communicate that doesn’t cost a lot of money. Remember, patients typically know other patients, so this can work to help disseminate information to those not in the office as well. 

On-Hold Messaging

Depending on your phone system, this can be easier said than done. Still, if it’s possible, it may make sense to do a quick recording incorporating some of the messaging you’ve been adding to the website or on social or having it automated when the phone picks up or when someone calls. Immediately before they even get to the phone tree, you have an update there for them. 

This is another, sometimes free, way you can help get information out to patients when they’re looking to see if the office is open for an appointment or trying to find out if the staff is OK or what have you. Take this opportunity to share how patients should reschedule appointments, what to do if they’re canceling, and address if there are going to be any financial or cancellation charges in lieu of the recent event(s). 

Broadcast Texts, Emails, and Phone Messages 

Consider doing a blast out to patients using a phone, text, and/or email message to keep them alert of what’s going on as well. This will help alleviate the strain of patients overloading your call center and work as another opportunity to tell your update your way through a pre-recorded or pre-written piece of content. 

Emails are great if you have them, but you may want to consider supplementing them with automated phone calls to patients or text messages. According to Rebrandly, just over 90% of text messages are opened by their recipients, so if you want someone to see what your update is, you may want to consider texting them. 

Evaluate Your Work-at-Home Policy & Available Tools

Depending on what type of crisis we’re dealing with, a lot of folks may not be able to come into the office. Dust off your work from home or telework policy because this will come up, and the answer can have a profound impact on the way your practice runs until things can get back to normal.  

In some cases, there won’t even be an option to go into the office, so employees will have to work from home. If that’s the case, the expectations better are clear. Also, consider if your workplace culture is one where people are made to feel bad if they work from home or if there’s an internal pressure to come into the office regardless of how you’re feeling or what you’re going through. 

If employees are going to be working from home, what tools might work to keep them in sync and on task? 

Slack is a great communication and collaboration tool as long as no PHI is being exchanged. If you’re just looking to quickly connect one department or team to another, it works great. It allows users to organize conversations, share files, and get answers faster than email or text messaging, and it’s free to get started. 

Zoom is another highly-rated communication tool employees can use to host face-to-face meetings with a click of a button. When you can’t meet in person, you can do a Zoom call. The video quality is very high, and features allow you to quickly and easily share screens, annotate what you’re seeing, and you can even record calls to share with those that missed them. 

Both services have a free tier, so you may want to have these things in place before a crisis actually does occur to get everyone’s feet wet with this new way of communicating now rather than just sending emails back and forth. This way, if something does happen, then at least your team is used to the functionality of the tool. 

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Be a Resource

Have your plan ready, develop your messages early, but, most of all, be a resource for your patients, your employees, and your community. 

When the dust settles, and it’s time to pick up the pieces, you want to be remembered for doing the right thing as much as possible and to the best of your ability as a team, an organization, and a brand. 

Being a resource is more than just messaging and reacting to incoming inquiries. 

Help where you can and cement your practice as a place that provides access to those in need and acts as a good citizen of the community whenever applicable to your crisis communication. This can not only build a sense of comradery with your team and improve employee morale following a tough time, but it may also open new doors and opportunities for the practice when a sense of normalcy begins to return.

Jennifer Thompson

Jennifer Thompson serves as President at Insight Marketing Group. She founded the medical marketing company in 2006 after an unsuccessful run for political office (which she went on to win in 2010 & 2014). Jennifer has two decades experience in marketing in the areas of technology, retail and medical for small businesses and Fortune 100 companies. She’s a serial entrepreneur who wakes up every day at 4 am ready to change the world. When it’s time to recharge, Jennifer enjoys being on the water and dreaming up her next big idea.

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