Communicating with care and compassion in a crisis

Caroline Wallace, Group Client Manager, BBS Communications

In this guest post, Caroline Wallace from BBS Communications Group provides an overview of how aged care providers can best approach crisis communications. BBS was recognised as a finalist in the recent Public Relations Insitute of Australia 2021 Golden Target Awards, for their work that included advising St Vincent’s Care Services during the peak of COVID-19.

The aged care sector has been undoubtedly one of the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.


From rapid and frequent changes to operational protocols to managing the health and safety of some of the most vulnerable in our community in unprecedented circumstances – it’s been a swift and steep learning curve for many aged care providers.

The pandemic aside, residential aged care is at particular risk for a broad range of potential issues, from health outbreaks such as influenza or gastroenteritis through to reputational risks associated with employee, board or family stakeholders.

Couple these risks with the pace of modern communication, the rate of societal change and the rise of community activism and we see the perfect ecosystem for crises to develop faster and more frequently than ever, and to wreak maximum impact.

So, how can aged care providers effectively communicate clear messages in a crisis, whilst maintaining a compassionate, values-based approach that is vital in communicating to their varied stakeholders? Planning and preparation is key.

Failure to plan is planning to fail

Aged care organisations should identify, prepare and plan to appropriately manage potential issues or crises within their organisations. Whilst we cannot predict every possible scenario, a good crisis communications plan will provide the foundation to respond to an event quickly and appropriately.

Four steps to becoming crisis capable:

1. Develop a robust risk identification process

  • Can you name the key risks facing your business?
  • When was your last risk audit?
  • Did you consider reputation as well as financial, legal and other risks?
  • Do you have a media policy and are your key spokespeople appropriately trained to speak in a crisis?

2. Document a crisis management plan

  • Do you have a roadmap?
  • What resources will be needed to run business-as-usual (BAU) and crisis operations?
  • Have you considered passwords, after hours contact details, site inductions and technology needs?

3. Establish your communication channels

Aged care has a range of stakeholders, with varied abilities to understand communication directives. Appropriate channels and methods must be considered for each stakeholder type.

  • Do you know who all your stakeholders are? (Internal, external, government etc)
  • Could you reach them quickly?
  • Can you LISTEN as well as SPEAK?
  • How do you calmly communicate (and enforce) new protocols to those with varying cognitive functions?

4. Establish a dedicated crisis communications team

  • Who is on the team?
  • What role do they play?
  • Where does the Crisis Team connect to the Operations Team?
  • Do you have an A Team and a B team?

Note: external consultants should be considered within the team to provide objective advice, support and backup to your internal team as needed.

Words (and actions) are critical

The words you use, and actions you take are critical in setting the tone for your crisis management, and recovery. In particular in the aged care sector where highly vulnerable stakeholders and anxious family members will contribute to an emotive media story.

Developing a set of key messages in advance will enable aged care organisations to effectively respond to the crisis, whilst maintaining core brand values and tone.

Consider:

  • What will be important to say?
  • What would your stakeholders want to hear from you?
  • How can the vision and mission of the business be conveyed whilst maintaining clarity on the issue and reducing unnecessary scrutiny?

What to say:

  • Acknowledge any wrongdoing and steps being taken to rectify an issue.
  • State the facts.
  • Express concern for people and agree to right wrongs.
  • Acknowledge fault. Use the word “sorry” if you can.
  • Share the load – e.g. “We work with…”.
  • Establish yourself as the ‘source of truth’ to shape the commentary and manage negativity.
  • Advise when information will be released.

How to say it:

  • First impressions count. Look the part.
  • Show understanding / sympathy FIRST.
  • Be honest and humble.
  • Remain calm and show concern.
  • Speak in common language
  • Speak with authority and conviction.

In short, crises in aged care are inevitable yet manageable. Successful organisations plan for issues and crises and pay as much attention to communication risks and responses as to operational ones.

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