Anatomy of a Crisis: Ebola at Emory

Emory University became the focus of worldwide media attention – and social media vitriol – when two of the first U.S. citizens to be treated for the Ebola virus in the U.S. arrived at its hospital.

During several weeks of the 24/7 media siege, the Emory communications staff strategically applied traditional and innovative public relations practices to change negative perceptions, practice transparency and communicate effectively with numerous constituencies.

One of the people managing the communications efforts was Nancy Seideman, associate vice president for Media Relations at Emory University. The university messages focused on safety, expertise and protecting patients (the Ebola patients and others at the hospital).

Seideman stressed during a conference presentation that from day one, messages were first shared internally, and later with the media. Internally, Seideman said, “People needed to feel safe and have confidence.” In addition, no media interviews were done without first prepping the speaker and ensuring that an Emory media rep was present for the interview.

Another consideration was ensuring that the university stayed within its own lane. ”What is yours to own?” Seideman asked. “What is appropriate for you to talk about and what should others talk about?”

Despite the viciousness of social media, Emory stayed above the fray. As Chief Nurse Executive Susan Grant emphasized, “We must care in both senses of the word.”

She and others emphasized that to eradicate deadly diseases, hospitals must first treat the patients who have the diseases. This led to the mantra of “We can fear or we can care.”

“We can fear or we can care.”

Surviving the crisis entailed finding a way for Emory to tell its story. It created a content development and approval process in which all content and messages were posted to a list serve where individuals who were authorized could review the materials and edit and approve.

Emory also focused on its numerous audiences, and always began with internal communications. It employed a variety of media tools.

“The risk of making an error was very high,” Seideman said. “We had to be really careful.”

Despite being out in front, it was clear that the media was not going away so Emory brought in an outside PR firm to assist. Seideman said fatigue was beginning to set in with staff working 18-hour days. The PR firm could assist, particularly with proactive messaging.

Media relations efforts focused on local and national media, and Seideman was quick to caution to not forget about the local media. Social media and news conferences also were important, as was day-to-day contact with news media. The daily contact became part of the Emory media team’s tent tour, where they provided regular updates and images as needed.

Among the lessons learned was the importance of reviewing protocols and processes regularly. “Our eyes glaze over when we need to update our practices and protocols for a crisis, but we must do it,” she said.

Also important, Seideman said, “Message discipline is key in a crisis.”

While the story has faded some, “The story is never really over,” Seideman said. Emory staff continue to give presentations on the topic. A website was created that includes video, recent news and resources.

Seideman continues to stay on point. When she ended her presentation at a recent conference, one of her last slides includes a list of the individuals who had worked during the crisis, from doctors and nurses to media staff.

Handling high visibility environments, aka a crisis

What most people call a crisis, Jim Vance refers to as a “high visibility environment.”

He should know. He was on the DC sniper task force and assisted with Hurricane Katrina. He also was the media & communications specialist and spokesperson for the FBI in Washington, D.C. Today he is a highly sought after media trainer.

Vance told a group of PR practitioners that he focuses on being prepared. Learning by experience, he said, is often brutal.

Some of the common management mistakes that occur during a crisis include:

Hesitation: If one hesitates when speaking to the media, others may perceive it as confusion and incompetence.

Obfuscation: When you attempt to confuse the message, you create a perception of dishonesty and insensitivity.

Revelation: One of the biggest mistakes, Vance said, is the failure to understand that revelation is inevitable. “Your actions will be revealed sooner or later,” he said.

Prevarication: “There is no substitute for the absolute truth,” Vance said.

In preparing for the worst, Vance said to take into account

–Dueling egos

–Political interference

–Media persistence

He offered tips to effectively work with the media and handle a crisis. His tips include:

–Be calm and then speak. The public is expecting leadership, Vance said, so it’s important that the spokesperson is able to speak without emotion and with clarity.

–Acknowledge what you know and don’t know. Vance noted that 90 percent of all first accounts are wrong. “It’s important to say things like, ‘Based on what we know at this time,’” which allows the speaker to update the information later.

–“You can’t have enough resources against the backdrop of bad news,” he said.

In all planning, remember that critics need a target. That leaves you with two crisis options.

  1. Clam up
  2. Mess Up, Fess Up, Clean Up

The first scenario guarantees “your side won’t be heard,” Vance said. “Critics are lashing out with unchallenged statements.”

Instead, Vance said to look at crisis situations as powerful communications opportunities – if management is prepared to engage and seize the opportunity.

Understanding Source of Stress Helps in Handling of Crisis

When you are in the midst of a crisis (the car breaks down, your child is sick and you need to pick him up from day care but you have a big presentation to give), how do you react?

Now think about a crisis at work that you have to manage as a PR practitioner. When the crisis strikes, what are the executives worrying about?

“The more we understand some of their stress, the better we are able to help them cope,” said Joan Gladstone, APR, president and CEO of Gladstone International.

The two key areas that executives think about in a crisis are financial impacts and reputation impacts, she shared during a PRSA webinar.

If the crisis is sudden, executives often display heightened reactions, which can lead to slow decisions, hasty decisions or emotional decisions.

As the PR person you play a critical role in a crisis. “You have an extraordinarily important role,” Gladstone said. The role is more than helping with the media, though.

“You must take a lead role in guiding the immediate crisis response strategies that could impact your organization’s reputation for many years to come,” Gladstone said.

Your role is to stay calm and listen. You don’t want to jump to solutions, and you should ask questions to understand the facts and evaluate ideas. It’s also important to introduce news and social media results into the discussion. This also is not the time to be timid – offer your recommendations.

When you ask the right questions, you will gain a better understanding of what is really important about the current situation. You should also be sure you are messaging to your key audiences.

Finally, recognize that the media won’t necessarily call for a comment. Gladstone said reporters will visit the website looking for a posted statement. If one isn’t there, the reporter is likely to note that. That means you need to get your statement ready and posted quickly.

Finally, Gladstone said it’s okay to offer an apology. “It shows you have a heart,” she said. “You are not admitting fault.”

Chess Moves Help With Crisis Communications

In today’s fast-paced social media world, you may never be contacted about a media crisis, even if it’s your responsibility to handle a crisis.

Too often, reporters, get their information directly from social media. By the time you learn of the event, it may have been streaming for hours.

“The journalist writing the story never contacted me,” Patricia Dempsey, director of communications at St. John’s College (MD), shared at the 2014 College Media Conference. “Media are researching online, whether the information is accurate or not.”

Ben Jones, vice president for communications at Oberlin College said, “I got the call at 4:30 a.m. about the situation, but the students were already tweeting.”

What do you do?

“It’s not a linear strategy. It’s like a game of chess.” Jones said. “You have to think five moves ahead.”

Those moves include:

  1. Develop a relationship with the media so they actually trust what you are saying. Provide context and give them something they can use.
  2. Follow the news on social media and update your own channels with relevant and timely information. That’s what the Boston Police Department did during the Boston Marathon bombing.
  3. Work with what is happening. A crisis plan is great to have, but it’s not always valuable in the midst of a situation.
  4. Develop a counter story and share it with the media.
  5. Identify individuals who are supportive who could respond on social media sites, including reaching out to reporters.

Prepared Messages Are Essential Part of a Crisis Communications Plan

If you work in media relations, a great deal of your time is probably spent drafting messages that may never see the light of day. That doesn’t mean that the work isn’t important.

These statements are important to have at the ready, and executives most likely will feel more comfortable knowing that a statement exists about a potential situation.

All media statements contain common elements, namely answers to questions that follow the basic journalism questions of who, what, where, when, why and how. Specifically,

  • Who was responsible?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When did it happen?
  • Why did it happen? Or why did the company respond to the incident the way it did?
  • How is the company resolving the issue?

Once you have the message drafted, it’s important to prepare FAQs to expand on the points and also answer questions that your company may not want to proactively discuss but that may be asked by the media, employees or stakeholders. By already having answers at the ready, the company won’t look as if it is unaware or trying to hide information.

Having messages at the ready is the first step in a well-executed crisis communications plan.

(Editor’s Note: My next post will focus on how to make the best moves for effective crisis communications.)