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One Indispensable Job: Crisis Communications Specialist

 |  By Lena J. Weiner  
   March 23, 2015

You might think the trick to avoiding tone-deaf press releases and communication blunders is to hire a PR specialist. Think again.

With staffing budgets tight, HR leaders naturally zero in on roles that might be redundant. To the untrained eye, a crisis communications specialist and a public relations specialist might look pretty similar—both roles are in the marketing or corporate communications departments, may require similar educational backgrounds, and appear to share similar skill sets.

But merging those roles would be terrible idea, says Barb Bortner, vice president of marketing and public relations at Mercy Health System in Janesville, WI. "By definition, public relations and crisis communications are different roles," she says.

"Public relations builds publicity for the organization and coordinates media interaction and events," Bortner explains. The crisis communicator's job is to protect the image the PR specialist has worked so hard to cultivate during a crisis.

Barb Bortner
VP of Marketing
and Public Relations
Mercy Health System

Without proper crisis communication, the results can be disastrous. "You would be struggling to figure out what to do. You may not find right people to answer questions, and would run the risk of looking like your organization is trying to cover something up. Ultimately, you could lose credibility with your audience—which would be the worst," cautions Bortner.

Don't Get Complacent
It can be easy to assume you'll never need a crisis communications specialist. Facilities located in small towns or a rural areas might feel like they're immune to crises. These are quiet places far from the media spotlight.

But, while these hospitals might never care for high profile patients, release patient zero of an outbreak while still sick, or experience a major scandal, they should always be prepared for the worst. There are many scenarios in which a crisis communicator could come in handy when interacting with the media:

  • Severe weather. As winter storms battered the east coast this winter, many hospitals felt it necessary to reassure the media and the public that they were prepared to receive and treat patients. Facilities in regions that do not experience snow, should consider how to handle similar questions about hurricane, tornadoes, flooding, or even severe drought.
  • Consolidation. After a national healthcare system acquires a smaller one in your area, the local media starts eyeing your hospital as the next potential "victim" of consolidation
  • Patient experience. A local paper publishes a letter to the editor about an unsatisfactory experience at your hospital
  • Staff issues. A previously well-respected clinician turns out to be hiding an unpleasant secret—and now there are media inquiries and requests for comment

No matter how well an organization tries to avoid the spotlight, these are all situations that any hospital could experience—and must be ready for. While it is tempting to ask your media relations team to hand these scenarios off to your PR staff, Bortner explains why that should be avoided.

"There are certain aspects of throwing someone into a crisis—they need to be ready for it. Their background and their training needs to be specifically for those kinds of situations. It's not that someone with a marketing or PR background could never handle crisis communications, but they need special training so be ready know what to do in case of crisis."

The Right Fit
The training never stops in crisis communications. In addition to general on-the-job training, many localities organize regional table-top simulations—sometimes with no warning—to keep essential staff well-trained and on their toes for unexpected emergencies.

And while many organizations insist a crisis communications specialist have a degree in marketing or public relations, Bortner says that she looks more at a candidate's experience than what subject they studied in college. She does, however, suggest that a candidate holding a certificate in crisis communications would be a huge plus.

"The candidate must be a good communicator and able to proactively plan for a future event that may never happen. I need someone who can think on their feet and think strategically about the messages that would put the organization in the best light possible," she says. Additionally, she looks for candidates who are decisive, outgoing, and able to juggle many tasks at once.

Crisis communications doesn't always require a senior level position. Many organizations have multiple crisis communications specialists with different experience levels—usually a senior-level public information officer and a crisis communications specialist.

While hiring staff to specialize in crisis communications may feel like a luxury, these employees are an indispensable part of your media relations team—and not the right place to cut corners.

Join Barb Bortner and Trish Skram of Mercy Health System for a Healthleaders webcast, "Mercy Health System’s Crisis Communication Game Plan: Response Preparation for a New Era" on March 25 from 1:00 -2:00 PM ET.

Lena J. Weiner is an associate editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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