​In the world of long term care, how leadership communicates about a crisis can be as fraught with reputational risk as the crisis itself. Being prepared with a robust crisis communications plan is as important as having an incident response plan ready.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic provided a prime example. Administrators of long term care centers were forced—nearly overnight—to respond to a virtual onslaught of evolving information and realities with strategies to protect staff and residents from the illness and its far-reaching impacts. Leadership was under pressure to draft and communicate consistent internal and external messaging to staff, residents, and their families—and often the media—about COVID-19 outbreaks, shortages of PPE or staff, COVID testing and vaccine availability, protocols, and so on, all while what was known and believed to be true was constantly in flux.

A Plan for Any Crisis

The pandemic highlighted the need for leadership to have a strategic plan to guide crisis communications. But the pandemic is also a useful example of the need for LTC leaders to have in place a communications plan for a variety of crises. A resident elopes. A staffer is accused of stealing residents’ property. A patient’s family claims the facility failed to protect their loved one from an assault by another patient. A Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) survey leads to an immediate jeopardy (IJ) determination, a falling CMS Five-Star rating, and a whopping fine. Don’t kid yourself. If it’s happened elsewhere, it can happen to you.

Allison PerrineSometimes the facility itself is the victim: A fire, flood, or power outage requires residents to be relocated. An infectious disease outbreak impacts staffing levels. An elected official unfairly targets the facility for political gain.

Facility leadership can and should have language drafted that speaks to an incident in general terms, before it happens. Communications professionals refer to these as “holding statements.” A pre-existing holding statement can be released quickly while the facility digs deeper to learn more, and it can be more easily tailored to address the actual circumstances than having to craft a statement from scratch. If you’re wondering why you need to respond to the inquiry at all, consider the mind of the public, “No comment” means “I’m guilty.” Keep in mind you can’t respond to inquiries from other residents, family members, or staff with “No comment.”

Communications missteps—whether by speaking too soon or too late or not at all, by giving competing messages to different audiences, or by a host of other means—can upend a facility’s good work, undermine employee relations and morale, and call into question leadership’s commitment to the welfare of its residents, patients, and their families. It can impact recruitment and retention of staff, and it can impact census.

It's equally important to communicate clearly and effectively internally. Often, when faced with a reputation-stressing crisis, the focus is external: the news media, for example. It’s crucial to communicate effectively with internal audiences as well. In a time of crisis those closest to the organization can also be its best supporters and advocate—if they feel included and valued. It’s critical that leaders prioritize internal messaging so that as soon as a situation arises, information can be sent out as appropriate—with consistency across messaging. This is key to ensure everyone gets the same information and that it is accurate.

Coordinating Stakeholders

Depending on the circumstance, additional stakeholders may need to get involved in a facility crisis such as fires, floods, or power outages. Facility leaders should be prepared to communicate with elected officials, emergency response agencies, and members of the media about the source and status of the event. Partner facilities and vendors may even need to be brought in if the incident requires that residents be temporarily relocated. Make a list in advance and come up with a plan for outreach.

Warren CooperEstablish relationships with local elected officials, hospital and emergency response directors (including law enforcement), and local reporters who cover seniors or long term care before a crisis occurs. Having those relationships set in advance can make the difference between positive and negative outcomes.

Additional stakeholders to keep in mind for communication outreach are referral partners. If a facility receives a low CMS score, an IJ, or a fine, for example, it may stir up hesitation from referral partners as well as donors, elected officials, and families who are deciding whether they want to entrust their loved ones in its care. On top of that, a low score can mean costly fines for the facility. Without swift, consistent messaging, complications may arise—and fast.

Advance Planning Is Critical

Not all crises are so extreme, but such communications need to be swift, accurate, and impactful. Even minor missteps are important to prepare for, such as delayed response times or poor food quality. Developing a crisis communications plan can be a sure way to check all the boxes. Who will be the media spokesperson? How will inquiries be passed up the food chain? Who will make decisions about how—or whether—to go public in advance of another agency sharing the news? These are all questions a proactive communications plan can address ahead of time.

A thoughtful communications strategy with the proper protocols in place in advance will help LTC leaders to successfully navigate the early stages of an actual or potential crisis. Legal and crisis communications consultants should be identified ahead of time. As with local elected officials and others, establishing a relationship before its needed can help accelerate an effective response when it’s most needed. Contact information should be at the ready, among your cell phone contacts, and in cellphone directories of your upper management team as well.

You may not need it today, or tomorrow. But you will, and likely sooner than you think.

Allison Perrine and Warren Cooper are principals at Kessler PR Group, the a New York-New Jersey metro public relations firm specializing in crisis communications, reputation management, litigation support and media relations.