When the phone call comes in, it is often on Friday night. Or worse—it will happen during a holiday weekend. Rest assured it will always be at an
inconvenient time. When you answer, you will be able to tell in seconds by the tone of the voice on the other end that the situation is not good.
You may not receive a phone call prior to a major crisis. Sometime, your initial awareness may come from watching it unfold live on CNN—a hurricane
battering the Eastern United States, many people becoming ill with a foodborne or infectious disease, or reports of people becoming seriously ill from a
yet-to-be determined cause. Regardless of the health crisis, the steps we take as public relations professionals need to be swift, consistent and
predictable. Given the urgency of crisis situations, we have to work quickly. Having a PR playbook for these health-related crises is essential to allowing
you to work quickly and ensure that you are implementing best practices in risk communications.
Recently, we have been working on improving communications during outbreaks in health care facilities. You’ve probably learned about these events through
In the past, notifications to patients about medical errors have been scary, lacked concrete and transparent information for patients, and resulted in
patients mistrusting the health care system. Patients may experience a wide range of feelings in addition to loss of trust—fear, anxiety, and lack of
control of the situation.
Some institutions, fearful that they will lose public and patient trust, have been reluctant to notify patients or their families. In fact, institutions
can use transparency to build and retain trust of their patients, family members, and other constituents.
Understanding the need for guidance in this area, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta created a Patient Notification Toolkit—a PR playbook for outbreak notifications related to
healthcare. This toolkit is based on public health risk communication guidance,focus groups, and stakeholder feedback. The principles in the toolkit have
been implemented successfully in numerous recent events.
In our Health Academy presentation, we will give examples of health care organizations that have used the toolkit to be transparent while building and retaining trust. We will also provide
practical guidance to implement these risk communication principles regardless of the event or type of organization you represent. Whether you are a PR
professional representing industry, a non-profit organization, health care industry, or government agency, the strategies we will discuss can prove useful
in any critical situation when you need to alert your constituents and ensure you retain their trust.
in Washington, D.C., and in the meantime, give us your feedback. Tell us about an event in which you wish you had a PR playbook.
Glen Nowak is
professor and director for the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia. Abbigail Tumpey is associate director of
communications science for CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.