“Ebola Hospital” Needs Long term PR Plan and Patience to Win Back Trust

Scott Sobel, MA, Media Psychology

Short-term and shortsighted PR reaction and action has, as we say at Media & Communications Strategies, “turned a crisis into a disaster.” I was quoted by the Fort Worth Star Telegram as part of a well-done report on, Texas Health Resources faces public fallout from Ebola crisis.

And an apology is not enough, said Scott Sobel, a crisis PR consultant in Washington.

“Apologies and firing administrative staff are warranted and even expected by the public,” Sobel said. “But in this day of sometimes shallow corporate and political apologies, the person or institution needs to show concrete change that leads to tangible improvements or the public will not be convinced the apologetic action is sincere and meaningful.

“The hospital needs a long-term vision of winning back trust.”

All of us have 20/20 hindsight, of course, and think we would have advised the Texas Health Resources’ Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital officials differently than the internal practitioners and outside mega-PR agency. Only insiders know who was, and is, calling the shots but so many fundamental crisis procedures weren’t followed one wonders about the pattern of missteps that has appeared. A pattern and perception of poor judgment is certainly what has dramatically affected the hospital’s staff and spurred nurses, whose colleagues contracted the virus, to be critical of the hospital and that same pattern is also keeping away patients in droves – at this time news reports post the hospital patient visits are off by 25 percent.

I’m going by first hand information from a Dallas reporter covering the story. The reporter says the hospital only sporadically and never completely answers journalist questions. All that does is build the wall of mistrust higher, blocking all key audiences. The reporters have to be seen as conduits of information to publics and not the enemy. Use them carefully, but use them.

The hospital needs to answer as many media and governmental questions as is possible in public, or, leak information or get facts out off-the-record. If hospital officials can’t answer for legal or privacy reasons, they need to say why they can’t answer a specific question and still answer as much as they can. Avoiding questions is not only unacceptable, it is also illogical. Antagonizing hospital staff now has absolutely minimal value. Another classic PR blunder possibly committed by well-meaning but ill-advised legal counsel attempting to win in court but setting up a paradigm that will lose public trust and the client’s business – the definition of a pyrrhic victory, right? I’m sure there are fears of lawsuits and of inaccurate reporting, but all my experience and the data I’ve seen shows the chance of lawsuits diminishes when the authority is compassionate and open with key audiences, families, and the public.

Another PR mistake “biggie” is the hospital’s officious criticism of the nurse’s union, remember the two nurses that contracted Ebola, although praise providence they both are reportedly well now. Sounds like a classic PR mistake of trying to “victimize the victim.” Always a bad idea. Plus nurses and docs are very high on public trust lists … while hospital administrations and corporations are pretty low on those lists (maybe not as low as journalists lately. I can say that as a former reporter, right?). If the hospital is going to set the record straight by refuting nurse’s union’s allegations, then that record straightening needs to be accomplished in the context of a compassionate tone and personalizing the hospital’s current sterile persona.

It was a good idea for the hospital to set the record straight with facts, according to the hospital. It was a not so good and idea for that “corrected record” not to include some compassionate statement and comments about hope. Again, I’m not privy to insider conversations or what the hospital attorneys might be directing because of future liability but the last thing the hospital wants to do is antagonize and/or intimidate its staff.

Without writing a book about this PR nightmare (I’m sure someone will) the hospital needs to win back trust and a solid bottom line again by primarily segmenting its problem areas and mounting individual campaigns to resurrect trust with solid results and compassionate messaging addressing each segment. If you try to instantly fix the whole patient you will end up just mitigating symptoms but not curing the disease. The hospital administrator has to be public again and lead the battle of redemption with his staff, those trust-index highly rated nurses and docs, standing with the administration in lockstep both behind the scenes and in public. There has to be a leadership team consistently taking the heat and eventually and humbly accepting the eventual accolades for actions resulting in the cure.

Mounting a social media whisper campaign by objective and trusted parties will do wonders for trust but don’t blow one’s own horn until one has a reason and a current track record of success. Old successes are minimalized in this dynamic new game where the old rules just don’t apply. Remember all of those reporters who used to just love the hospital’s CEO? I wonder how that CEO feels now, betrayed probably. But the hospital professional managers must understand that even if they feel abandoned by the gods and it was just happenstance that led Ebola through their doors that had such a great health care record BE (Before Ebola), there truly is very little going on that’s personal in this media maelstrom. The hospital administration should take a solid dose of whatever medicine will thicken their skin and think with their heads and not act imprudently with emotion.

This Ebola crisis is much more far-reaching and scary than the PR practitioner’s health care bellwether, Jonson & Johnson’s successful handling of the Tylenol case in the ‘80’s. I covered that story as a reporter in Denver then and even though this health crisis is more virulent by miles the lessons from “Tylenol” are absolutely appropriate for Ebola. Treat the disease of mistrust with definitive action balanced with patience, compassion, unselfish and quantifiable measures and courage. Throw in a large measure of common sense and the patient will recover.

Scott Sobel is president of Media & Communications Strategies, Inc., a Washington, DC-based public relations firm that manages reputation and communications challenges of all kinds, worldwide. www.macstrategies.com. He is also a former corporate public relations practitioner and major market and TV network investigative journalist.