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Crisis Communications

ALFA Tool Kits

Crisis Communications, Strategies for Dealing With the Media

As the assisted living industry undergoes scrutiny from the media, it is now more than ever important to create a crisis communications plan so that your organization’s spokespersons know how to deal with the media when a crisis hits.

The Assisted Living Federation of America prides itself in responding quickly and honestly to members of the media. Here you will find some tips on how to deal with press and a list of people at ALFA Headquarters to call if there is a situation in your state. If necessary, the Assisted Living Federation of America will post contact information for the media for areas that are affected by a crisis so that they can get a complete picture.

What is a crisis?

A crisis is an unexpected and unpleasant event that has a negative impact on your operations and requires immediate attention and action.  During a crisis, remember that careful and honest communications is a MUST. An inappropriate response can damage your company’s public image and disrupt your internal procedures and operations.

For the assisted living provider, a crisis could result from any number of events impacting on your reputation -- ranging from a fire, to an intruder, medication management issues, to a staff walk-out.  Because you never know when a crisis is going to occur, the best time to plan for a crisis is now.  Too many organizations plan for a crisis after one occurs, then scramble to respond appropriately.

A crisis hits. You're ready for it!

Remember that a crisis can only be anticipated, not planned. However, if you are an assisted living provider and you’ve planned for a crisis, you’ll be better prepared to manage it, rather than have it manage you. The first step is to meet with your team to:

  1. Define the real problem and determine its extent.
  2. Gather the facts and plan communication steps:
    1. Determine spokesperson
    2. Develop three key messages that will serve as a basis for all responses.
    3. Provide as much detail as possible about the nature/extent of the problem and the actions that are being taken.
    4. Stick to the facts.
  3. Determine communication priorities:
    1. Those most directly affected.
    2. Employees and Board members.
    3. News media and other channels of communication.
    4. Those indirectly affected:
      1. neighbors
      2. regulators
      3. friends
  4. Act promptly, speed is important.
  5. Stay in control.
  6. Follow your plan of action. The crisis team should handle the crisis while the rest of your organization continues to run your operation.

When the crisis is over

  1. Continue to monitor the situation.
  2. Stay in touch with key audiences.
  3. Write a summary of the crisis, how it was resolved, and measures to adopt to avoid similar problems in the future.
  4. Update your Crisis Communications Plan accordingly.
  5. Cultivate relationships with the media and your audiences to rebuild lost confidences.

Managing the media

When a crisis hits your assisted living community or the industry overall, you may find yourself in the position of managing attention from the news media. If your first impulse is panic, that’s not uncommon. But responsible providers who offer appropriate care need not worry. In fact, you might wind up being grateful for this unique opportunity to enhance public awareness and market your services.

Follow the recommendations below, and you can turn a potentially damaging crisis into a chance to showcase the excellent care that your senior living company provides to residents every day:

Wherever the assisted living industry is under scrutiny, get assistance from ALFA

No other group will stand up for the Assisted Living Federation of America and our members. As you know, ALFA is the largest organization dedicated exclusively to the assisted living industry. We can provide vital leadership and support in turning such events into opportunities to discuss the quality care that your company and other assisted living communities provide to an estimated one million residents every day.

Understand the gravity of the situation

At first, the reporter may not even appear adversarial. But it is a common media technique to ask “softball” questions to put the interviewee at ease before delivering the “gotcha” questions that the reporter may hope will uncover problems. Any time your assisted living company is examined by the news media, the reputation of your company and the assisted living industry is on the line. Take that prospect seriously by using recommended steps to manage the media.

When a reporter asks for a comment, always provide one

Even when faced with an intimidating interview, you should always take the opportunity to tell your side of the story. Many times, this will be your only chance to do so. Ignoring the reporter or replying with “no comment” not only wastes an opportunity but likely will foster ill will with the reporter.

If you don’t feel prepared at that moment you get a reporter’s call, it is usually okay to call the reporter back after a minute or two. Collect your thoughts and refer to your talking points.

Use prepared talking points in communicating with reporters, employees, residents, family members, and others

For example, the Assisted Living Federation of America has provided members with talking points regarding media coverage of assisted living in May 2004. You may not think you need talking points because of your experience and expertise in assisted living, but without them even the most seasoned veteran is likely to stray from key messages and omit something that needs to be said. Boil down your points to just a few vital facts or ideas, the “take-home” messages that you want your audience to absorb. Rehearse responses with someone who can play “devil’s advocate.” Videotape the dialogue, review your performance, and shore up weaknesses.

In the hectic atmosphere often created by negative coverage, talking points can help you and your colleagues stay “on message,” providing sound information and repeating important themes in conversations with reporters as well as your other constituencies. Remember to communicate in a timely and direct way with those other constituencies, including staff, residents, and family members. They’ll appreciate your straightforward approach, and they are your best allies in communicating your messages to the media.

Never talk “off the record.” 

There is no such thing, not for certain. While many reporters may respect your wish to not be quoted, not all will. In addition, reporters’ notes can fall into the hands of editors and lawyers, who may use them in ways neither you nor the reporter ever intended. The only way you can guarantee your words won’t come back to haunt you is to not say anything you are not prepared to stand by in public.

Tailor your response to the situation and the news medium

While it may be clear that you want to respond to the crisis at hand, less obvious may be the way you must customize your presentation depending on whether you’re interviewed for television, radio, a newspaper, or a Web-based news forum. Before a TV interview, walk and stretch. On camera, smile and be aware of your body language, which can affect your credibility. For TV and radio, limit answers to about 30 seconds. Standing may help strengthen your voice. If interviewed for print media, you may get more time to have your say, but don’t let that tempt you into going “off message.” Use charts, graphs, and other visual aides as appropriate to make your point.

Don't respond to specific cases or situations where your comments might compromise the rights of a resident, an employee, or another

Even if you are familiar with details or facts regarding a particular incident, you may not have all the information. Do not provide any information or comment before consulting your lawyer. Doing so may complicate the situation for others and for you.

Take a break from the interview if necessary

Don’t hesitate to temporarily stop the interview if you need to gather information or feel like a reporter’s questions are leading you “off message.” Visit the restroom. Drink water. Stretch your legs and take a deep breath. All the while, review your talking points in your head so that you can put the interview back on target when you return.

Create transitions whenever necessary in the interview

If the reporter has an agenda for the interview different than yours, you need to bring the conversation back around to the substance of your key messages. After answering the reporter’s question directly, use a transition phrase — such as “and that means” or “so the important point is” — to send the message that you want to see in any news coverage.

Enlist the help of your senior residents, their family members, and your employees

There is strength in numbers, and you almost certainly have large numbers of satisfied customers and proud assisted living employees who can support what you say. Ask them to participate in interviews and send letters to the editor in support of assisted living, as appropriate. Yours should not be the only voice speaking on behalf of your company and the other assisted living providers likely to be affected by any negative coverage.

Don’t fan the flames of inappropriate coverage

When addressing a media crisis, keep your response measured. Say what needs to be said, and then say no more. Otherwise, additional news organizations may leap on what they see as “a story with legs.”

Once you’ve answered a reporter’s question, don’t be afraid of silence. The reporter may want you to keep on talking in the hope that you’ll say something you shouldn’t. After you have clarified your key messages and corrected any misperceptions, you only risk further negative attention by keeping the story alive.

When the dust settles, learn how well you fared

The temptation may be to put it out of your mind, but that won’t help you manage a crisis better next time. Ask assisted living colleagues, staff, residents, families, and other community members about their perceptions. You may even want to hold meetings to discuss developments, outcomes, and next steps. It is almost guaranteed that the process will generate some good ideas for sharpening your crisis communications plan.

Finally, please remember that the Assisted Living Federation of America is equipped and ready to support you as best we can. Consult the other assisted living resources and other assisted living providers. Together we can manage the media to tell our side of the story.

Who to Contact at the Assisted Living Federation of America when in a Crisis?

Rick Grimes, Assisted Living Federation of AmericaRichard P. Grimes LinkedIn icon
President & CEO
703-894-1805
rgrimes@alfa.org

Maribeth Bersani, Assisted Living Federation of AmericaMaribeth Bersani LinkedIn icon
Interim CEO & SVP of Public Policy
703-562-1180
mbersani@alfa.org

Jaclyn Allmon, Assisted Living Federation of America Jaclyn Allmon, CAE LinkedIn icon
VP, Marketing & Communications
703-562-1192
jallmon@alfa.org

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