Crisis, what crisis? When things go wrong, good communications can get you back on track


When things go wrong, keeping quiet isn’t an option. What you say, and how you say it, are the key to safeguarding your reputation. In this blog, Highland Marketing’s co-founder, Mark Venables, looks at communicating in a crisis.

Crisis? What crisis?

The thing with crises is that they’re sudden, unexpected, and not under your control. You think it’ll never happen to you, then you’re part of the news cycle – and not in a good way.

In our sector, problems are pretty much inevitable. Think about it. Healthcare technology is tricky stuff.

Innovation means that you’re often dealing with first of type systems. No matter how well you’ve laid the ground, nothing fully prepares you for the moment when a customer goes live with a new system.

You’re also probably dependent on third parties, either for core technologies or to provide interfaces and data. They have all the same problems as you do, so you may suffer collateral damage.

Then there’s malign cyber-attacks, which can take down even the most carefully planned and monitored installation.

If something happens, your fault or not, it’s still your problem.

It’s a high stakes game.

To use the jargon, healthcare technology is “mission critical”. At best, system trouble means administrative delays, extra work, and regulatory scrutiny. At worst, it means serious clinical risk. There’s ample scope for even a minor problem to compound into a full-blown crisis.

The dangers are clear. Product rejection, reputational damage, and ultimately business failure. Worse is the clinical risk impacting customers and ultimately patients.

It would be fair to say that in this business, boring and reliable are selling features.

Don’t think you can hide.

Our sector is highly visible. Everyone is interested in healthcare, and most people in the audience have an opinion about technology. Journalists and commentators are looking for something to fill column inches and schadenfreude makes for easy stories.

You can’t hide, and saying nothing isn’t a good option. If you don’t comment, someone else will, and they won’t have your best interests at heart. Social media means news travels fast, and bad news travels fastest.

What can you do about it?

Over the years we’ve worked with clients to help them understand risk, plan for the unexpected, and respond rapidly. This is what we’ve learned.

Plan and prepare – and do it before the crisis hits.

This one seems obvious, but surprisingly few people get round to doing it. When you’re focused on making healthcare better, you don’t worry too much about what happens when you make it worse.

Keep a register of the risks you face and monitor the situation constantly. Asking the question, “what could possibly go wrong”, is a fundamental skill for project leaders, implementation specialists, and senior leadership.

Know your plan in the event of a problem. You need to identify your overall crisis lead and give them the time to draw up a plan. You also need to know who handles communication and make sure they’re trained to deal with the media.

It’s also essential to build good relationships with people who have influence in the environment you’re operating in. This could be journalists, policy makers, or customers. Having credit in the reputation bank means you have allies to call on when times get tough.

Own the crisis – react rapidly and control the message.

There’s a cliché amongst communicators that your reputation is built on how you cope with the tough stuff. Some people believe that a strong response in a difficult situation can actually enhance your standing with customers, prospects and influencers.

It’s not a theory I’d want to test to destruction but getting out in front of problem makes good sense.

People who do crisis management well are available, open, and empathetic. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should blow up minor problems into crises just to show that you care. What it does mean is that, when the worst happens, you need to be in control, move rapidly, and demonstrate your commitment to finding a resolution. You also need to be there, on the ground, with reassuring actions.

Apologising is good, fixing the problem is better.

Perhaps the most difficult thing is accepting the problem and taking responsibility. We all of us suffer a bit from hubris and, when you’re innovating, there’s a tendency to believe your own PR.

Going against an old adage, in crisis management, always apologise and always explain. This isn’t weakness, it’s honesty and empathy. Stuff happens and, if it’s your fault, you need to deal with it. This doesn’t mean empty apologies of the, “sorry you think you’ve had a bad time” type. It means being clear about the problem, explaining the causes in a way that makes sense to your audience, and setting out an action plan.

Of course, the real solution is resolving the problem or providing sensible workarounds. Good crisis communications can prevent damage to your reputation. Fixing, a problem can genuinely enhance your standing with a client.

Who you gonna call?

If this seems like a lot of time and effort, think of it this way, it’s all common-sense business practice, just like insurance.

Even if nothing goes wrong, the thinking and preparation means you’ll deliver a better service for your customers, and a better working life for your people.

One thing you do need to consider though is what support you need.

Dealing with a crisis isn’t business as usual, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s likely you’ll need help, be that expert counsel, strategic messaging, or someone to handle tactical communications. One communicator I know always asks agencies who would be available to advise the CEO if something nasty happened on a Sunday afternoon.

Crisis planning and communication is one of the services we offer at Highland Marketing. Get in touch. We’d be happy to talk it through with you, even on a Sunday.

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