The Four Commandments of Confronting Bad PR

Ron Harman King offers PR insights from the university of hard knocks

Ron Harman King, of Vanguard Communications, spent more than three decades working in and with the mainstream media in public healthcare communications. In this edition of “The Wired Practice,” the self-proclaimed “grizzled, battle-tested veteran of bad press” offers insight, in the form of four commandments for handling bad PR.

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Video transcript

A couple of weeks ago the healthcare profession suffered a major PR (public relations) meltdown – and I mean that literally. Within hours of each other, two American IVF clinics faced the agonizing responsibility of informing thousands of patients that nitrogen storage tanks cryopreserving their embryos and oocytes had failed, possibly ending their dreams of parenthood.

Not surprisingly, the incidents fueled coast-to-coast media coverage. As always whenever tragedy strikes, there are lessons to be learned. In full disclosure, I should say I’ve been inside many an in vitro fertilization laboratory, but managing one is not in my professional domain. So I won’t comment on the science or mechanics of cryopreservation. However, I have spent more than three decades working in and with the mainstream media in public healthcare communications.

Therefore, a grizzled, battle-tested veteran of bad press would like to offer a few insights from the university of hard knocks. In this spirit, I present four commandments of confronting bad press.

1st commandment of bad PR

The first commandment: Thou shalt not run and hide. A public controversy or scandal typically means a customer or constituent is distraught, talking to the press, and frequently threatening to sue. In these instances, lawyers advise clients who are potential defendants to say as little as possible in public to avoid making statements that may be used against them in court.

Okay, fine, understood. Problem is, the public interprets silence or taciturn responses to any kind of public crisis as insensitive and responsibility avoidance. In the public’s mind, silence equals probable guilt. Additionally, silence only further motivates the aggrieved to punish the purported instigator of the tragedy.

Reality check: We could spend an hour discussing the nuances of balancing legal risks against long-term public relations damage. Mind you, over the years I’ve debated quite a few lawyers in this high-wire act. For now, though, let’s summarize.

If you’re facing the glare of negative press, I strongly recommend quickly but carefully developing a crisis communications plan with the help of both attorneys and seasoned PR professionals. You wouldn’t seek legal advice from a PR pro; why would you accept PR advice from a legal expert?

2nd commandment of bad public relations

Now, the second commandment: Consider thyself potentially a victim of the innocent bystander variety. If you’re in the same business, profession or specialty, bad press for others can be bad press for you, too.

Taking the latest IVF crisis as an example, let’s remember that an estimated 350,000 IVF babies are born worldwide annually and more than 100,000 American women undergo in vitro fertilization each year. Although the recent lab malfunctions occurred at just two IVF clinics, front-page news coverage has no doubt caused millions of men and women with gametes in frozen storage at other clinics to wonder intently, Are my eggs, sperm, and/or embryos safe? Any healthcare provider with custody of patients’ biological property now faces this question more acutely, whether spoken out loud or not.

3rd bad PR commandment

Which brings us to the third commandment: Focus on thy primary audience. It’s not journalists. It’s not your peers or other healthcare professionals. It’s your patients: healthcare consumers. The medical profession has long exercised an admirable code of honor in avoiding public criticism of colleagues. I like and respect this ethic. A lot.

The downside, however, is that healthcare providers too often go mum when a colleague is on the hot seat, not wanting to appear to be capitalizing on a peer’s misfortunes. That’s not the right idea. Rather, the urgent need is for some form of reasonable public assurance.

Consider the analogy of an airplane accident. The latest deadly airline crash in the U.S. occurred in Buffalo, New York, on a snowy February night in 2009, in which 49 passengers and crew perished. Immediately afterward, aviation experts were all over the news discussing what might have gone wrong and how to improve procedures for flying through low visibility and icing conditions. Their message was clear. No one said flying is one-hundred percent risk free. Instead, their salient point was that aviation manufacturers, safety experts, airlines, pilots, and government officials work constantly to improve the safety of flying.

Since 9/11, there have been only four commercial airline crashes in the U.S., claiming a total of 391 lives. In comparison, some 600,000 Americans have died in automobile accidents in the same period – that’s fifteen-hundred times as many. Yet we climb into cars and planes every day with the assurance that air bags, seat belts, incessant inspections, government oversight, and advancing computerization make planes and cars reasonably low-risk forms of transportation.

Similarly, patients generally accept the same scale of risks in healthcare. This is why they sign consent forms. They only want periodic reassurance that the professionals in charge are painstakingly making it as safe as possible.

The 4th commandment: empathy

Finally, the fourth and most important commandment: thou shalt speak AND act with empathy. Again, let’s take the IVF tank failure as an example. More than one study has found that infertile women endure as much stress and anxiety as cancer and HIV-positive patients. Fertility specialists say they must often provide as much emotional care as physiological care, which requires more than verbal expression.

The best caregivers also make the best listeners and best teachers, seeking to soothe raw emotions with the comforting knowledge of expertise. Sometimes it’s not so much just what you say that’s important, but what you hear as well. Or another way to view it is to remember that in difficult times, silence is anything but golden.

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