A patient at your hospital complains on a well-read consumer review site that one of your most prominent doctors has engaged in personal misconduct. Before you know it, a growing chain of rumors has blown up in cyberspace and journalists are leaving voicemails with everyone in your department. You need to start controlling the narrative, and you needed to start yesterday.

In the old days, a large organization could handle a crisis in reputation management via form letters, press releases, and maybe an interview or two with the news media. The public received information from a relatively limited number of sources, and delivering a response required a relatively simple process.

Today's consumers encounter news — and rumors — from review sites, social media, and other peer-to-peer platforms that operate independently of news media channels. The modern health system must use modern communication tools to protect its reputation and its patients, whether from real quality issues or the unfounded rumor mill.

Step 1: Create a united front
Normally, consumer relations and public relations are handled by different departments. But during a crisis surrounding your reputation, the already blurry line between “consumer" and “public" practically disappears, especially when it comes to attracting new business. According to Ruhr Economic Paper 516, 76% of the patients place great importance on a hospital’s reputation when choosing a hospital.

Ensure a consistent and timely response by involving external communications, customer service, marketing, IT, and when appropriate, clinical departments in crisis communications. While your PR team delivers content to the news media, your marketing team can perform an end-run to deliver personal content directly to your patients and prospective patients.

Consider developing a crisis communications operations center, with representatives of all stakeholders present in the same room or on the same project management intranet. Talk to your IT specialists about setting up a system in advance that stakeholders can join the moment a crisis erupts.

Step 2: List your targets
Identify an “A List" of individuals who may need special attention during a real or hypothetical incident. In some cases, such as a system-wide data breach involving personal information, your basic response will probably include all consumers, which is simple enough to broadcast. But you'll have to go a step further when certain classes of individuals are more deeply affected, in an incident such as the parents of patients in a pediatric ward exposed to an unexpected bacterial contamination.

Next, identify locations on your company's patient web portals, social media pages, mobile apps, and other proprietary media where you can upload explanations, instructions, and other critical content in the event of a crisis.

Likewise, create a “watch list" of third-party locations, such as social media sites and local directories. If you employ monitoring software that scans, for instance, consumer reviews or social media hashtags, ask your service provider to help integrate it into your overall response plan.

Step 3: Monitor everything
Creating a watch list for reviews and conversations doesn't merely shorten response times during a crisis; it can also help you prevent one from occurring in the first place.

Automated monitoring software to track consumers' comments online can alert you to the existence of a “paracrisis." Defined by Timothy Coombs of Texas A&M University as “a situation where managers must address a crisis risk in full view of its stakeholders," think of it as a small brush fire that you need to put out now.

You'll want a tool that monitors for specific negative complaints as well as general words or phrases that convey a negative sentiment, so you have broad visibility into what complaints are being made about your organization online. Setting up social monitoring to "listen" for key negative phrases could be the fastest way to be alerted to a problem.

Suppose a parent complained online about alleged unsanitary conditions in your pediatric ward. By tracking and addressing it immediately, you can prevent the rumor mill from growing and, if the complaint has merit, take quality control steps to prevent a potentially more serious incident.

Also pay close attention to your organization's own social media pages, where you can control as well as monitor content. The California Hospital Association recommends that “if an employee, patient, or other 'interested' party posts an inappropriate comment through social media, the hospital may consider removing these posts and managing the issues offline." Removing isn't always a good or smart option, however, so you also need a strategy in place to appropriately address negative feedback.

Step 4: Steal the thunder
Like individuals, organizations tend to put off releasing negative information for as long as possible. This is a normal reflex; after all, nobody wants to be the bearer of bad tidings. But the last thing you want is for a consumer to hear it from strangers who have no stake in preserving your reputation.

When possible, respond to them before the rumor goes viral or the news media has written its first headline. This will demonstrate integrity, influence the narrative, and put any solutions front and center. Called “stealing thunder," studies have shown that if done properly, it can help preserve an organization's reputation, according to San Yeal Lee of West Virginia University.

Update your organization's websites, social media pages, and mobile apps with whatever information, explanations, and other content you deem necessary. Employ SEO techniques to ensure that your page and your narrative appear at the top of search engine results. If the content is extensive or detailed, consider creating special landing pages dedicated exclusively to the matter at hand.

Step 5: Reach out
Depending upon the nature of the crisis or paracrisis, it may not be enough to upload “pull" content like web pages. You may need to engage in some serious “push" content, reaching out to your consumers both en masse and one-on-one.

When appropriate, task a trusted and respected member of your staff to contact “A List" individuals personally, offering reassurance, information, condolences, and when appropriate, apologies.

Have someone respond personally to negative comments on the third-party sites that you monitor. This opportunity is all-too-often overlooked, as physicians responded to less than 2% of all web-based ratings in 2015, according to the Journal of Internet Medical Research.

Step 6: Go back to the beginning
Before a crisis actually occurs, meet with your network administrators, software vendors, and web developers to create a turnkey response system you can activate at a moment's notice. For instance:

  • Automate your monitoring of third-party directories, review sites, and social media, to assure that you receive timely notification of any relevant comments.
  • Create crisis categories in your customer relationship management (CRM) software to help you quickly tag individuals or classes of individuals for special handling.
  • Create unpublished pages and generic content within your content management system, then adapt and publish them whenever needed.

When crisis strikes, addressing the issues at hand head on, step by step, will save you time when time is of the essence.
Want more insight into proactive reputation management best practices and how they can help you build a foundation strong enough to withstand a crisis? Read our posts Tips for Reputation Management and Getting Executive Buy-In for Reputation Management.