LeadingAge Magazine · May/June 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 03

Who Speaks for Your Organization?

May 14, 2016 | by Debra Wood, R.N.

Clear, logical policies for public communication are valuable all the time, but especially critical when crises occur. These providers have put together plans that ensure their organizations always speak with one voice.

Getting your message out to the public may seem relatively simple, yet it’s a task best left to the experts to avoid gaffes and misunderstandings, whether in normal circumstances or crises.

“What might seem a benign statement from an employee or a resident could be very dangerous,” says Kathy Kammer, senior director of community relations at Williamsburg Landing, a life plan community in Williamsburg, VA, with 340 employees. “They are not thinking of the messaging. I work closely with our president and CEO, as well as the leaders directly involved with the issue at hand, when preparing comments for the media.”

Minimizing who will talk to the media ensures everyone speaks with a unified voice. Oftentimes, the employees do not have all of the information or facts. Kammer educates employees and residents about the policy to refer all inquiries to the senior director of community relations and reminds them at regular intervals.

“Speaking with one voice is important, because line employees may say something detrimental to the organization,” says Randy Eilts, vice president of public relations for GlynnDevins, an agency representing senior living communities based in Overland Park, KS.

Having one common message is critical, because “people make decisions based on their perceptions of a brand, which is why it’s important to take steps to protect your brand and value what it represents for your organization,” says Michael Smith, corporate director of communications for Acts Retirement-Life Communities in West Point, PA. At Acts, the corporate communications department handles all media requests both at the corporate and community level and has developed guidelines, fact sheets and interview tips for staff and residents who may speak to the media.

“Having policies and protocols in place helps us to communicate in a consistent manner across the organization,” Smith says.

The Acts “voice” speaks to stakeholders and not at them, in an authentic way, by providing helpful information that meets their needs, Smith explains.

At Francis E. Parker Memorial Home, a skilled nursing, assisted living and adult day provider in Piscataway, NJ, Fern Marder, the marketing and communications manager, strives to project a “voice” that is construed as friendly, authentic, interesting and trustworthy. The marketing department is responsible for communications to the general public. Periodically, Marder reminds employees not to speak directly to the media, “even if the caller is persistent.”

Some organizations outsource their communication to an agency, which can issue a statement or have someone experienced talk with a reporter, or organizations may hire an agency to provide media training or advice as to how to handle the situation, reports Eilts. If the organization has an experienced communication staff person, he or she can work with top leadership on a response and developing the message.

Kammer regularly talks with local reporters and has developed professional relationships with them. She may call a press conference, for instance to announce an expansion, send a press release or offer comment for a national story to provide a local perspective.

“They trust and have confidence in us as a senior living community,” Kammer says. “The relationships need to be nurtured, and they know they can call me.”

Kammer has worked on developing those relationships for 8 years. She has found that works well even when a more negative situation occurs. The reporters seem more willing to give her the “benefit of the doubt” and know she will be truthful.

“Relationships always help,” Eilts adds. “It’s important to have ongoing public relations throughout the year that generate positive messages about your community. Those messages serve as a buffer for when crisis situations arise.”

Acts regularly serves as a resource and an expert source for media in the 8 states where it has communities and for national reporters wanting to learn more about senior living.

“One of the ways we can help the media is by providing who to contact at our organization directly on our website,” Smith says. “If the media cannot find what they are looking for quickly and easily, they will move on to another source.”

All of the communication experts recommend providing a mechanism for outsiders, including the media, to contact the communications department and the leadership team. Parker uses a contact us form on its website.

Eilts recommends incorporating into the website a way to easily access the designated media person and creating a “dark page” for the main message during a crisis.

Williamsburg Landing and Acts have both created dark pages on their websites, where the companies can place emergency information if needed. Neither has needed to use it yet.

Parker embraces social media and uses Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram. Marder manages all of the sites. The community also has an active blog. Williamsburg Landing also has an active blog, which is the responsibility of the senior director of community relations.

Acts and Williamsburg Landing have guidelines for employees using social media, with the type of things that are and are not appropriate. They use primarily Facebook and Twitter.

“Social media has become the primary platform to get information and updates out on events that occur in a community,” Smith says. “Social media helps us to communicate faster and directly with our audience, which is especially important in a crisis situation.”

The website and social media are only the start of an organization’s crisis communication plan. Being prepared before a disaster strikes is key to a good outcome.

“It’s not a matter of if a crisis is going to happen, it’s a matter of when,” Eilts says. “Being prepared is crucial. We will map out with clients a protocol.”

Eilts suggests contacting an agency for help developing a crisis communication plan before any events happen. It gets people thinking about a variety of potential crisis situations.

Depending on the severity, he will help the client issue a statement or do an interview.

Parker has never experienced a need for crisis communications, but it has a policy in place. Marketing handles standard media inquiries, and if a crisis occurs, the call will be escalated to the executive leadership team.

“The communication plan comes down to ‘tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth,’” Marder says. “The ultimate goal is to protect the integrity and reputation of the company while being absolutely truthful about the crisis.”

Williamsburg Landing has created a four-page critical incident communications plan, defining critical incidents as situations that threaten a disabling injury or the life of a resident, employee or guest, damage to the property or something that could have a negative public relations effect.

“Without a plan, there is too much disorganization throughout the campus,” Kammer says from experience.

A small plane crash-landed on the Williamsburg Landing campus in 2013 and drew a gaggle of media, with reporters calling every phone on campus. The community also has experienced sprinkler pipes bursting and structural deficiencies that required renovations. The crisis plan was in place and offered guidance.

“You cannot be too prepared,” Kammer says.

Kammer recommends having a spokesperson talk to the press rather than a CEO until all of the facts are known, and keeping the media in a controlled setting, such as a conference room, and not letting them roam around on campus. She also teaches employees to never say, “no comment.” Staff members are taught to take the information and let the person calling know Kammer will get back to him or her.

“That’s a red flag,” Kammer says about “no comment.” “It sounds like you are hiding something.”

Eilts reminds people that the media is doing its job by asking questions. Senior living organizations need to be responsive, open, transparent and honest. If there’s a lawsuit, explain the details cannot be released.

“The communications piece can never be overlooked,” Kammer says. “Take charge, be positive.”