Social Media Complicates Ebola Crisis Communications

Ebola Facebook Crisis video Gerard Braud

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By Gerard Braud

A glance at the Emory Healthcare Facebook page magnifies the complexities of crisis communications in the age of social media. I’m not a huge fan of social media in a crisis. What I see playing out on Emory’s Facebook page reconfirms my dislike of social media as a crisis communications channel. As Emory University Hospital tries to save the lives of two health professionals affected with the Ebola Virus, some people hail them as heroes. Others accuse them of jeopardizing the health of everyone in the United States and accusing Emory of doing this as a publicity stunt. Yesterday I wrote about Donald Trump’s Twitter attack on Emory.

Emory FB wide 1If your business or company is in a high profile crisis, the traffic to and the comments on your Facebook page increase. The way Facebook is structured, each time a person adds a comment, good or bad, that Facebook page goes to the top of the newsfeed for everyone who follows the page.

This creates a constant battle of opinions, good and bad, right and wrong, sane and insane.

When Chobani had their yogurt recall in 2013, I warned their social media team to stop trying to fight the crisis on social media. For every positive post from a customer or the company, there were dozens of negative posts.

My best crisis communications advice is to post your primary message on your website and share that with the mainstream media. Next, e-mail the link to all of your employees. After that, e-mail the link to other stakeholders. These are the core people who need to know your message.

If you post the link to social media, avoid comments such as, “We appreciate your support and understanding.” Such remarks encourage negative comments from the cynics who don’t understand your actions and who don’t support you.

Emory Chobani FB Sorry 1In a crisis, people can talk about you on your social media site and they can talk about you via hashtags on other sites. Given a choice, I’d rather not have a history of negative comments on my own social media site. You may find you are better off letting people vent with hashtags on other sites rather than being angry on your social media site.

Sometimes tried and true beats shiny and new. Sometimes in a crisis, you may find that it is in your best interest to rely on conventional crisis communications tools. It may be better to take your social media sites down completely until the crisis is over. If people need information, they are smart enough to find it on your primary website.

Emory FB commentsIt is difficult to Tweet your way out of a crisis. It is difficult to Facebook post your way out of a crisis. It is difficult to get in an online shouting match with idiots.

Three Media Training and Crisis Communications Tips for Doctors and Employers

By Gerard Braud

ebola

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The current Ebola crisis has the media calling upon their medical experts to communicate about infected patients being flown to the United States for treatment.

Media training for this type of crisis requires you to have a plan for how your doctors and physicians will respond if they are called upon to talk with reporters. Every employer needs to be prepared to follow these same rules. When talking about the health of an employee or a patient, HIPPA rules – the Federal rules that govern patient privacy — essentially prohibit a doctor or employer from talking about the patient.

Yet the media want details; details a treating physician cannot give; details the employer cannot give.

The three secrets to an intelligent interview answer that satisfies the media are to:

1) Set the context of the situation

2) Politely admonish the reporter

3) Speak in generalities

An artful answer may look like this:

“First, we need to recognize that because of Federal laws governing a patient’s privacy, I’m not allowed to give any specifics about this patient and neither should the media. In general I can say that a patient with Ebola can be safely quarantined because the virus is not transmitted by breathing in the infection, but only by contact with blood or body fluids.”

The medical experts and reporters on the network news programs have done a brilliant job of walking this fine line when being interviewed by their networks and reporters. An increasing number of reporters are more aware of HIPPA rules, but many are not, while others try to trick the spokesperson into saying something.

Here is the key: The media need a good sound bite or quote. Write a good sound bite then train the spokesperson to deliver it in a masterful way to the media.

On the NBC Today Show Monday morning, the doctor spokesperson from Emory University Hospital, where the patient is being treated, does a good job of not violating the patient’s privacy. It is an interview worth watching.

If we dissect the interview a bit further, here are a few things to note:

NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie states in her question, “I know that you can’t say much, if anything about the patient, under your care, but let me just try. Can you confirm that he is improving this morning?”

The doctor responds by saying, “I really can’t comment on the clinical condition of the patient. That comes specifically from the request of the patient and his family.”

The answer is an okay answer that doesn’t violate HIPPA. However, to a reporter and the audience, it may seem like something important is not being said or that the spokesperson or doctor is hiding something, when in fact they are just protecting the patient. Granted, doctors are not professional spokespeople, which is why they require extra media training when talking about a crisis like this. Granted, the doctor needs to be focused on the patient and not the media, which is why regular media training with doctors, when there is no crisis, is the best way to have them ready for a future crisis.

An abrupt answer like that is known as a “block.” A “block” is more acceptable when it is combined with a “bridge” and a “hook.” The bridge allows you to bridge to an acceptable answer and then hook the reporter and viewer with new information and a quote.

A better answer would follow my guidelines above and sounds like this:

“First, we need to recognize that because of Federal laws governing a patient’s privacy, I’m not allowed to give any specifics about this patient and neither should the media. In general I can say that a patient with Ebola can be safely quarantined because the virus is not transmitted by breathing in the infection, but only by contact with blood or body fluids. While I cannot comment on the prognosis or any progress about this patient, I can say that our institution is optimistic that we have the right facilities and right physicians to treat someone with Ebola, which is why the patient has been flown here from Africa.”

Using this technique, the doctor doesn’t just block the reporter’s question, but also bridges to useable information.

In the PR department at Emory, the media trainer and the PR team are likely calling this interview a success… and they should… and it is, because the doctor walked the fine line of HIPPA. But with a slight bit more training and practice, the doctor can be taught to use the full block-bridge-hook technique, for a more polished answer.

For all of you who must media train a spokesperson, realize that you can go from good to great with just a few minor adjustments in an answer. Regular media training goes a long way to make your spokespeople great.