Crisis comms: When the two ‘most wanted’ men are your patients

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center treated 24 victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. That was just the start. About 1,000 media requests poured in after the two suspects were admitted there.

Like many hospitals nearby, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center treated victims of the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon.

But the two principal suspects were brought there for treatment, too.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev died at Beth Israel Deaconess because of severe trauma suffered in the gunfight on April 19. His younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was wounded in the gunfight and later captured, has been upgraded to fair condition.

“We’re treating victims, as well as the suspect,” says Jerry Berger, director of media relations at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “It’s important to have people understand that’s two separate issues.”

The communications team has been going full throttle, working 23-hour days and doing everything it can to respond to roughly 1,000 media requests. To communicate what was happening at the hospital, the team held a press conference, created an email list for the bombing victims, and posted updates on its two Twitter accounts (here and here) and on Facebook for its followers.

During the crisis, the three-member team has followed the hospital’s emergency management plan. Even though two team members were on vacation when the bombing happened, that didn’t stop them from communicating the hospital’s message or responding to media inquiries.

This crisis communication story has unfolded in two ways.

Bombing victims

Immediately after the bombing, 24 victims were rushed to the hospital. As of Tuesday, 11 were still being treated there.

On the day of the marathon, Jerry Berger, director of media relations, fielded calls from reporters during his trip home from New York. Later that night, he dealt with network requests for television interviews for the following morning.

But reporters didn’t want to talk only to him. They wanted more faces—clinicians and patients—for interviews. However, clinicians were too busy for interviews because they were caring for patients, and because of HIPAA and other privacy laws, no interviews could be set up with patients.

“The privacy rights of a patient come before anything else,” Berger says, “but that message can get lost in the media, because they are in a rush to cover a story.”

Internally, the team created an email list just for bombing victims; it’s updated daily.

In the beginning, the media focus wasn’t just on Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, because victims were sent to several hospitals. That media focus was about to change.

Suspects come to the hospital

Overnight, from April 18 to April 19, “things got crazy,” Berger says. This was the timeframe when the brothers were in a gunfight with police, and older brother Tamerlan was sent to the hospital.

Berger got his first page around 12:30 a.m. on Friday morning about what had happened. He called his team around 3 a.m. Then at 5:15 a.m., they held a press briefing, which he describes as “remarkably well attended.” He said that he contacted some local TV, radio, and newspaper reporters about the press briefing, and word spread quickly to national news outlets.

This press conference was held to inform the media that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been brought in but did not survive. Dr. David Schoenfeld, who lived in Watertown, heard the gunfight and went directly to the hospital. During the press conference, he told reporters about the gunfight and how he had treated the suspect. That story was picked up by The Boston Globe.

After the press conference, the city went into lockdown because Dzhokhar was still on the loose. Berger went home around 4:30 p.m. on Friday. He ate dinner and just after he fell asleep on his couch, he was immediately called back to the hospital.

“We were told that we were getting Dzhokhar, but by that time, the FBI had taken control of everything,” Berger says. “We were told that all we could tell reporters was that he was at our hospital and that we’re running our communications through the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. That’s all we could tell them.”

So, if he couldn’t give reporters any specifics, what could he say to them?

“You just have to keep responding to them,” Berger says. “We could confirm that he’s here, but we say that it’s an ongoing investigation and refer them to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

The hospital isn’t allowed to confirm Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s condition. The hospital gives his condition to the FBI; then the FBI posts it on its Twitter account. The hospital has the option of retweeting the FBI.

A concerted effort

The three-member team has been updating its Facebook page and two Twitter accounts as much as possible, but Berger says things have been too hectic to concentrate on it. However, when there is a post or update, fans respond with support. More than 500 people “liked” this post:

Thank you to everyone who has posted such kind words on our Facebook page over the last couple of days. We’re so proud to have amazing doctors and nurses who dedicate their lives to helping people get well. #BostonStrong

Berger credits the communications department for being part of the hospital’s emergency plan and says a team effort went into dealing with the crisis.

“It’s terrific to have a competent, strongly committed team when you go through something like this,” Berger says. “You draw strength off each other through this shared experience.”

Since the bombing, team members have been working “23-hour days.”

“It’s the biggest story in the world, but you do what you need to do,” Berger says. “That’s where the adrenaline comes from—knowing how big and important this is. You need to get out there and do your job, and be helpful with the restrictions you have to work with, because that reflects on your institution, both nationally and internationally.”

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