Media Training Tip: Ebola Crisis Communications Interviews

EBOLA webinar Gerard BraudThe Ebola crisis has spawn a rash of spokespeople saying things to the media that should have never been said. If you are the public relations person responsible for writing statements and news releases for your hospital, company or spokesperson, this blog is for you. If you are the media trainer preparing the spokespeople, this blog is for you. If you are the spokesperson… yep, this blog is for you.

Behold exhibit # 1: A news release statement from October 15, 2015, as a second nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital becomes ill from Ebola.

The hospital released a statement saying, “Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance very serious.”

YOU CAN’T SAY THAT! Really, you cannot defend that statement PR team from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

Here’s why: If it were true, two nurses would not have Ebola. Do you follow my thinking? Two nurses have Ebola because safety was obviously not the greatest priority and obviously compliance was not taken seriously.

Every time I teach media training or do a conference presentation, my advice to PR people and CEOs is to run every statement through the cynic filter. I just demonstrated my cynicism… and trust me, I’m a huge cynic. If you filter your statement past me, will you get a positive reaction or a negative reaction? That my friends, is the cynic filter.

My apologies to the PR team if this was not your words, but the words of your lawyers or PR firm or agency. But as a public relations professional, your job is to shout “No” when a B.S. statement like that is written or proposed.

Back in August, when the Ebola story broke regarding Emory University Hospital, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden made bold statements about Ebola not spreading in the U.S. He was wrong.

Dr-Anthony-FauciDr. Anthony Fauci, with the National Institute of Health, in an interview on the Today Show this week, on October 11, 2014, said, “We’re not going to see an outbreak” of Ebola in the U.S. He even references Dallas as an example of proper containment of the virus, which as we all now know, is wrong.

Once again, if you are a spokesman, you can’t say that. You can’t defend that statement. You cannot guarantee it so you should not say it in an interview.

If you are the person providing media training for the spokesperson, you cannot allow the spokesperson to say something like that. You have to be so intense in the media training class that you push the student to the point of failure in the training class, pick them up, fix them, and don’t release them from role playing until they are perfect. Media training should be designed to let a spokesperson fail in private so they don’t fail on national TV, or any interview.

Close isn’t good enough. A crisis this serious demands the best communications possible. There is no margin for error in interviews just like there is no margin for error in containing a serious disease.

Would you like to know the magic words that will set you free? Insert the word, “goal” and throw away the words, “committed” and “top priority.” My top priority is to get people to stop saying top priority and committed.”

Instead of saying, “Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance very serious,” a better option is to say, “Our goal is to protect the safety and health of every patient and every employee.” (Yes, I intentionally used “every” twice.)

My statement is one that can be defended because it is stated as “a goal.” It is forward looking and aspirational, while not definitive, such as, ““Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance very serious.”

If you are responsible for writing statements that get re-written with tired clichés by your lawyers or CEO, your job, as a public relations professional, is to push back. If you write these type of clichés because you were taught to do this or have heard these clichés so many times that you think this is the way it should be done, please stop.

If you are responsible for media training your spokesman, you must not be afraid to push back when the student doesn’t perform well. As the trainer, you must not be intimidated, especially if you are training your boss, or in the case of a hospital, a powerful doctor.

We have an Ebola crisis on our hands. Are you making it better or worse with your statCrisis communication workshop gerard braudements?

We’ll talk about these issues and more this Friday in a special webinar about Ebola. Register here.

If you need help with your Ebola key messages, contact me for assistance writing bullet proof key messages. And if you need help media training your spokespeople, I’m happy to help. Call me at 985-624-9976.

– By Gerard Braud

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Ebola Crisis Communications Considerations

By Gerard Braud

5 Ebola Considerations Gerard BraudYour personality type may decide the fate of your crisis communication response if the Ebola crisis touches your company (or the company for your work for.) On one extreme is the personality that says, “It’s too soon. Maybe we should watch it and wait and see.” On the other extreme are those who say, “Heck, let’s get prepared. I’d rather be prepared and not need it than to be in the weeds if it hits us.”

If one of your employees gets Ebola or is perceived to possibly have Ebola or may have come in contact with an Ebola patient or a place where an Ebola victim has been or has come in contact with a person who came in contact with an Ebola victim, then the crisis now affects you.

Here are 5 Ebola Crisis Communication Considerations:

1) The Need is Real

EBOLA webinar Gerard BraudThe crisis may touch your organization because of a person who is actually ill or because of rumors or hysteria. Either option may really happen, forcing you into reactive communications mode. You’ll need solid internal employee communications and customer communications. You’ll need external media relations. You’ll need to fight the trolls and naysayers on social media. Why not start planning your strategy and messaging now? My belief and experience is that you can anticipate nearly every twist and turn on a clear sunny day, in order to manage effective communications on your darkest day.

2) Ask for Help

Many CEOs and executives hire one person to manage their image. Often they will hire a marketing specialist, never realizing that marketing is not public relations, media relations, or crisis communications. Fearing reprisal from their leadership, some people in our allied fields would rather try to disguise their lack of knowledge rather than ask for help. But in the C-Suite, the reality is the boss wants you to speak up and say, “I need help. This is beyond my level of expertise.” Most people in the C-Suite, while never wanting to spend money they don’t have to spend, realize that getting help from an expert could preserve their reputation and revenue. Don’t try to fake it. That will ultimately cost you your job, as well as the company’s reputation and revenue. Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Ask for help.

3) Tie Ebola Communications to Business ROI

Preparing for communications you may or may not need will cost either time or money. It may cost both. But communications preparation can pay for itself.

Here are just a few considerations of doing nothing:

  • The cost of rumors
  • The cost of a single case linked back to your organization
  • The cost of a cluster of cases linked back to your organization
  • The cost of becoming synonymous with Ebola
  • The cost of worker illness and lost productivity
  • The cost of your company going out of business

Communications about precautions is step one. It may quarantine patient zero in your organization and keep the virus and negative news from spreading, saving the company huge sums of money in all of the categories listed above.

Crisis communication workshop gerard braud4) Plan Now

Don’t wait until you are in the middle of your crisis when you are forced into reactive mode. Proactive mode is the sign of a public relations professional. Now is the time to review your crisis communication plan and to determine if it is Ebola-ready. For some of you, now is the time to write that crisis communications plan that you have never written. Now is also the time to write messaging templates for before, during and after an event. Plus now is the time to conduct media training for potential spokespeople and to conduct a crisis communications drill. Response should be planned and never reactive.

5) Be Opportunistic

If you haven’t been able to get a seat at the table or get executive attention in the past for crisis communications, consider this your golden opportunity.

Opportunities to discuss crisis communications with the CEO and the leadership team do not happen often enough. It takes a crisis that hits all businesses equally to sometimes get their attention. The feared Y2K crisis in 2000 caused CEOs to write checks for millions of dollars, mostly to IT experts. Other companies used it as a reason to develop a small part of their crisis communication plan. Sadly, it was usually targeted at only Y2K issues. The H1N1 threat in 2009 once again got the attention of executives to the extent they were willing to give staff time and money to do what needed to be done.

The opportunity for crisis communication planning and crisis management planning is once again upon us because of Ebola. Now is the time to initiate discussions with your executives. It is also useful to seek partners from other departments. Human Resources, operations, international travel, and risk management departments all will need to manage various portions of this crisis. Each are wonderful partners who may already have a seat at the table and who already may have the knowledge and skill to get the time and money needed to accomplish your tasks.

In the coming week I’ll share more lessons and insight with you. On Friday, October 17, 2014, I’ll host a live discussion via webinar. Sign up for FREE with this link. On November 5 & 6, 2014 I’ll host a workshop in New Orleans that will allow you to create a 50 page crisis communications plan with up to 75 pre-written news releases. You’ll walk out of the workshop with a finished crisis communication plan and the skill to write even more pre-written news releases.

Ebola Crisis Communication Plan, Crisis Management & Strategy: Is It Too Soon to Talk About It?

EBOLA webinar Gerard BraudIs it too soon to talk about your Ebola crisis communications strategies and plan? A New York based public relations professional asked me that question today. I responded by saying, “Why wait? One week ago no one in Dallas gave Ebola crisis communications a second thought. Today, at lease 14 businesses and government entities have to send spokespeople out to talk to the media about their portion of the Ebola crisis.”

I say start getting your Ebola crisis communications plan and crisis management plan in place now. Your Ebola crisis can crop up without warning. Your crisis could result not only from an actual Ebola case, but from the hysteria of false information about a case.

You may own a business, be the CEO or leader of a business, hospital, school, or non-profit. You may be Crisis communication workshop gerard braudthe public relations or crisis management professional for a business, hospital, school, or non-profit. NOW is the time to realize that it only takes one case of Ebola to be associated with your organization for a world of media attention to descend upon you. Along with media scrutiny and hysteria, you will also have to deal with the online social media trolls. If you skip a beat… if you hesitate… if you are just slightly behind the story or the crisis, the institution you are associated with will be treated like a 19th century leaper – no one will want to have anything to do with you. It becomes the ultimate crisis, defined by complete harm to your reputation and revenue.

Examine the case in Texas, in which Ebola patient Thomas Duncan has died at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. The airline, the TSA, the Border Patrol, the hospital, the apartment complex, the sheriff’s department, the patient’s church, the school system, the Texas Department of Health, the Texas Governor, the Dallas County Medical Society, the Dallas County Coroner, and the mortuary that cremated his body are all suddenly players having to communicate about some aspect of this crisis. That means thirteen entities that were far removed from the crisis a few days ago are suddenly thrust into the crisis. Fourteen people, if not more, suddenly need to be a spokesperson about their portion of this crisis. Each suddenly needs a crisis communications expert. Even Louise Troh, Duncan’s longtime partner, has retained a public relations firm to speak on her behalf.

Gerard braud Ebola blog 1

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The piece-meal communications I’ve seen indicates that each of these entities are having to develop their crisis communication strategy on the fly. If they have a crisis communications plan, it appears none were updated prior to the crisis to address Ebola. In other instances, it is clear that no crisis communication plan exists, which is the reality for many organizations. And experience in reviewing a vast number of documents that public relations people call their crisis communication plan has proven woefully inadequate. In no way do they meet the criteria of a document that would guide and manage communications in a crisis.

Could you suddenly be a small part of this bigger story? You bet.

Are the odds low? Maybe yes, maybe no?

Could that change quickly because of variables beyond your control? Absolutely.

Is the risk high enough that you should invest time and money to prepare? The vast majority of organizations will say no, because they are in denial about how real the potential threat is. Yet it is a fool’s bet to stay unprepared, when the act of preparing can be done quickly and affordably. Furthermore, when done correctly, you can develop a crisis communications plan that will serve you for Ebola, as well as hundreds of other crises you may face in the future.

Is this line of thought logical? In my world it is very logical. I believe in being prepared. Yet experience tells me that this thought process will be rejected by the vast majority of you reading this and the vast majority of leaders and executives who run corporations, hospitals, non-profit organizations, schools, and small businesses. Human denial is a stronger power than the power to accept a simple option to prepare.

“We don’t need to worry about that,” is easier to say than, “Let’s get a team on this to prepare. The chances are slim, but if it happens it could destroy us.”

“Destroy us?” Is that too strong of a suggestion? Well, two weeks ago the Ivy Apartments in Dallas were a thriving, profitable business. Do you think anyone wants to move into those apartments after an Ebola victim has been there? Do you think existing residents will stay? The owners are already feeling the symptoms of damage to reputation and revenue.

Based on my crisis management and crisis communication experience, don’t be surprised if you see the Ivy Apartment complex bulldozed and the land left vacant for a time, all because they were, through no fault of their own, associated with a global crisis beyond their control.

What are the odds? Very small.

What is the reality? Likely financial ruin.

Are you willing to roll the dice if you own a company? Are you ready to roll the dice if you are the public relations expert for a company?

“Better safe than sorry,” is my suggested approach. Yet, “That won’t happen to us,” or “The chances of that happening to us is so small it isn’t worth our time and effort,” is what the vast majority of organizations will think or say.

In the coming week I’ll share more lessons and insight with you. On Friday, October 17, 2014, I’ll host a live discussion via webinar. Sign up for FREE with this link. On November 5 & 6, 2014 I’ll host a workshop in New Orleans that will allow you to create a 50 page crisis communications plan with up to 75 pre-written news releases. You’ll walk out of the workshop with a finished crisis communication plan and the skill to write even more pre-written news releases.

I’m available to answer your questions on this issue. Call me at 985-624-9976.

Gerard Braud

Three Media Training and Crisis Communications Tips for Doctors and Employers

By Gerard Braud

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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.