Friday, February 20, 2009

Good Public Relations is Equal to Better Health

The correct approach must be to be forthright, transparent, and to accept ultimate responsibility without much hesitation. News media are bombarded with stories every day. How do you choose what is most interesting? We will not cover press releases here, but rather the importance of a long-term strategy emphasising your 'good works'.

Pro-active PR

Your objective is to identify real stories about what a great facility you have, and the good you do for people and communities. So, put your best foot forward. The best news stories are about patients and medical staff as human beings, combined with healing against all odds, or successful surgeries in difficult circumstances.

How do you start your pro-active strategy? Bring all department heads together for a comprehensive discussion towards a cohesive approach. Of course, this approach must be in tune with the brand and image of the facility. In other words, don't forget to invite the marketing department. As in any organisation, the challenge is to have this cohesive message still intact by the time it filters down to the front lines. For this reason, your PR officer should meet with each department separately and regularly to discuss important and innovative work.

An important result of regular contact with media to tell them about worthwhile stories is that, whether stories are published or not, your PR officer forms a relationship with key health and news reporters. Contacts are made and kept. These contacts and this approach are extremely important when the bad news happens.

Reactive PR

Sometimes mistakes are made by medical personnel who are human beings. Sometimes a quality process is not up to standard, or not internalised by staff. Sometimes ownership has neglected an issue. Most important, every patient is different and has different responses to stimuli. Sad and bad things happen. Yet, two facts are against you even before the unfortunate occurrence has taken place.

First, the 'tall poppy' syndrome. When someone increases in stature to be a superstar, other people have an urge to cut that person 'down to size'. Sad but true. People and reporters will always want to know the clay foot of a superstar. This syndrome is coupled with a distrust of authority, in most countries. Hospitals and doctors are of course authorities on health. In some circumstances, people are not inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to authority, but rather to suspect the worst. They think of a cover-up.

Second, the media loves a sensational story. 'When it bleeds, it leads' is a maxim of media. This is why reactive stories of tragedy are more likely to be news, while proactive 'good works' stories may be harder to place in media. Don't forget that every reporter wants to be a star, too. They want a juicy story. All these sad and bad things do happen, and who is to blame? You are to blame.

When bad news happens, your facility can only hope the media contacts you have carefully nourished pro-actively will call you to ask for your side of the story, for balance. Consider the UK media where 'slash jobs' are done without any balance. So, when bad news happens, what will your story be? For insight, let's look at two famous negative health care stories: Tylenol and Bhopal.


In 1982, seven people in Chicago, USA died after taking Tylenol capsules that had been tampered with and replaced with poison. This was soon found to be an act of random murder. Parent company Johnson & Johnson distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors. They stopped Tylenol production and brand advertising, but soon advertised that individuals should not consume Tylenol. They issued a nationwide recall of an estimated 31 million bottles of Tylenol with a retail value of over $100 million.

Tylenol's market share immediately collapsed from 35 to 8 per cent. Later, it was determined only Tylenol capsules were tampered with, and Johnson & Johnson offered to exchange Tylenol capsules purchased by the public with solid tablets. Tylenol soon re-introduced capsules in a new triple-sealed package, which set a new packaging standard for all OTC medications. They had taken a negative and turned it into a positive, and were seen as a leader. Market share rebounded in less than a year, credited to consumer confidence in how the crisis was handled, and Tylenol was undisputed market leader for many years.

Think again about this story: it is a focused strategy to limit danger no matter what the cost or embarrassment, and to emphasise quality and trustworthiness.


In 1984, a tragedy struck right here in India: Bhopal. I will not recount the details here. Readers know of the gas leak which was blamed by Union Carbide on some unnamed 'disgruntled worker'. A different opinion came from former workers who said the plant maintenance was not up the mark and led to the disaster. More than two decades later, the cost of human suffering is scarcely fathomable: more than 1,00,000 people have died or become deformed or affected in other ways. The groundwater around the plant area remains contaminated, and the question of cleaning up the area is still unresolved. In addition there were costs to business, to the brand of the city, to various Governments and to Union Carbide. The company has since been sold several times.

This was a difficult case. Police were recorded as broadcasting that 'everything is normal' to the population. Several conflicting statements from various sources came during the ensuing days, weeks, months and years. This remains one of the worst industrial accidents of all time.

Anyone who thinks about this story will realise that from the beginning right through to the present day, nobody has taken appropriate responsibility. Which is the correct approach? Remember you are dealing with effects on your brand and company value, your employees, your patients, not to mention Governments, regulators and benefactors. Should you hide, deny and hope for distraction? Or should you address issues head-on and simultaneously show you are correcting the situation?

The correct approach must be to be forthright, transparent, and to accept ultimate responsibility without much hesitation. Of course, you did not intend this bad thing to happen. Presumably, you had the correct safeguards and quality standards in place. Obviously, your PR officer should already have ownership-approved emergency SOPs in place for any unfortunate occurrence, and those SOPs have been understood by department heads in order to lessen misunderstandings at a critical time. Naturally, your PR officer must have 24-hour access to a mobile number of the CEO to discuss an urgent response to an emergency.

Hopefully those good pro-active relationships may help to buy some time or understanding, as that reporter inches closer to deadline with each passing minute. Yes, in healthcare public relations, you put your best foot forward…and you hope for solid footing for as long as possible.


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