By Elizabeth Flaherty, Managing Director, Wavelength Public Relations.

This article was originally published in Fusion, the magazine of Leading Age Services Australia (LASA).

Reputation damage is inevitable in any business, but there are some Agedcareindustries where the stakes are higher when you get it wrong; Aged Care is one of those industries.

As a team we have worked on a long list of critical incidents in major health facilities including:

* staff dropping premature babies,
* sexual assaults on patients,
* infectious disease outbreaks including SARS,
* power failures,
* cockroach infestations and
* water contamination.

The list of what can, and does, go wrong is extensive.

The good news is that one adverse incident does not need to define your reputation. In fact the community, your staff and the local media may proactively support you through the tough times, if you have already earned their trust and respect. The bad news is most organisations do not do what it takes to build a strong enough reputation to weather an inevitable storm well.


Would you prefer 10% bad publicity or 100%?

NewspapersIt sounds like an obvious choice, but through inaction most facilities opt for the default of 100% bad publicity. Many organisations are frightened of interacting with the media and to their detriment believe that staying out of the news will keep them out of trouble. Unfortunately a negative story will make the news and not cooperating with media will generally make the story worse.

In contrast building a good relationship with local media will stand you in good stead for the tough times. We recommend being proactive in regularly pitching newsworthy stories to them and being accessible. In doing so, you will build a wealth of positive news and a good rapport with the local journalists.

The journalists will still do their job and report when there is a bad story, but it is your choice what percentage of publicity that issue represents for your facility.

Being proactive, even with the bad news can help turn the perception around. When the community feels you are doing everything possible and not hiding anything you will have more support. If community groups feel they are being stonewalled you will lose their support.

For example it is far better for the local community to learn about an infectious disease outbreak because the organisation is proactively educating the community on infection control and reminding people of the importance of visiting protocols, than to hear about the situation through a disgruntled family member going to the media or talking about it on social media.

This same principle of being proactive with the media should be applied to every other group of people who are important to your reputation. Think about what you are doing every day and every month to build a positive reputation with the people who matter to you.

The patient file syndromePatient files

When things go wrong there is often another incident that follows shortly after, which is typically due to people overcompensating and inadvertently making the situation worse. My team refer to this as the patient file syndrome.

Anyone who has worked in healthcare long enough has experienced a situation where a patient has had a bad experience and the more staff try to improve the situation the more things go wrong. In one instance a nurse decided to personally hold the patient file, clearly the issue then became nobody else could easily access it, which only compounded issues.

When there is a significant issue that results in reputational damage followed by another incident, one of two things are occurring in the organisation. The first scenario is something has gone wrong and in its wake another incident has occurred, which is mainly bad luck. The other is something has gone wrong and the organisation has been placed under the spotlight of scrutiny and there is actually much more below the surface; not resulting from bad luck, but resulting in a reputation it has long deserved and is only just catching up with it.


There is no magic wand

Often when we are called in after a high profile incident, the damage is done and Hourgalss3it is merely a mop up. It is disheartening to assess a situation and be able to identify simple steps which could have mitigated the reputational fall out, but that is not simply the benefit of hindsight it is usually the absence of the basic public relations planning which should be part of any modern organisation.

Like anything in health, preventative measures are typically far better for the well-being of an organisation and far better on the hip pocket. Having a public relations strategy in place, which can often be administered by your own staff, with a yearly review, is far more worthwhile than calling experts after the damage has occurred.

Also, when things have gone wrong it is much simpler walking into an organisation where key staff, including legal counsel:

* know who you are,
* know you have signed their confidentiality agreements,
* know you are aware of patient confidentiality and
* know all of the protocols they need to operate within.

In reputational management we also work to a golden hour and you don’t want to spend it struggling with protocols, when you could be responding to a journalist and getting ahead of a story.


Accessible nature and accessible language

During a reputational crisis it is not just what you are communicating, but how you are communicating that is important. Too often organisations have a tendency to hide in the bunker of bureaucracy, but it offers little protection and usually engenders more antagonism from the community. The tone and style of how you communicate is critical. The best litmus test of how a message will resonate, is, how would you explain this to somebody sitting in a pub reading the Daily Telegraph? It is easy to make a message complicated and inaccessible, to wrap it up in jargon and verbosity, but the average person in the street sees through this kind of strategy. Keep your messages in plain English so that they are easily understood, but more importantly relatable.



Reputation management in many ways is increasingly complex with online Umbrellasreputation management strategies, social media, a quicker news cycle, bad news going viral and highly organised protest groups ready to punish organisations for doing the wrong thing. However, the bottom line of reputation management remains the same: you will get the reputation you deserve. If you have a public relations strategy, if you have worked diligently and measurably to develop strong relationships with the people who matter to your organisation and have a workable crisis management plan for when things go wrong, you will weather any reputational storm well.

Like anything in life, genuine results take work, not quick fixes.