With the ABC’s Four Corners program set to air a two part investigation about the treatment of the elderly in aged care facilities, crisis management expert Gail D’Arcy gives some advice about how to weather a media storm.
There probably isn’t a day in Australia when an aged care facility is not featuring in the media amid allegations of mistreating the residents or operating with unsafe practices. Throw in some telling film footage and you have a ready-made controversy that will set the airwaves alight.
The other factor in this scenario is of aged care management being caught in the headlights, unprepared and outflanked, watching the reputation of their centres and staff vanishing in a puff of smoke. It is as if they had never given any thought to what they would say if this moment came to pass.
And the truth is: they hadn’t.
Firstly, let us provide some context. This article is about being prepared for when the media come calling, not about the day-to-day running of an aged care home. If you are aware of mistreatment of your residents and doing nothing about it then, frankly, you deserve everything coming.
But the reality is that most incidents that happen at aged care facilities are of a lesser severity, a result of human error, of being unable to control every single interaction that occurs in busy homes.
You may think you run a terrific aged care home – you’re at the top of your game – you’re unlike any of these unlucky organisations you seen on 7.30 Report or A Current Affair or splashed across The Age or Sydney Morning Herald. Sure, if someone comes to investigate you – you have nothing to hide, so why should you be worried?
When a journalist calls: not the time for orginal thought
Your confidence may be misplaced. Issues can hit you from all angles and can include fraud, harassment of staff, theft, privacy breaches, hidden cameras, flood or fire, clinical issues, failing quality measures, resident family disputes, food poisoning and many other examples. As well as having plans and processes in place for dealing these kinds of situation – what we call a crisis plan – you also need to develop a communications plan or protocol for how you would deal with the media if these issues came to public attention.
Because when a journalist calls is no time for original thought about how you should respond. The media can occupy an important role in these situations: a ham-fisted response can exacerbate the reputational damage of any incident; a confident, accurate response, on the contrary, can mitigate that reputational damage and give the community confidence that you are on the right path.
Media like conflict, they like situations where disputes arise, where there is an opportunity for controversy, and they love a situation where there is a strong human interest angle. If the source of that human interest- a resident, a resident’s family, or a disgruntled staff member – can provide colourful and interesting comment then the story is readymade.
You need to be ready to respond and to have a plan in place. You need to have identified the risk factors to your organisation’s reputation. You need to be honest and broad in your thinking.
The most important quality in any media response is that it must be factual. Verify the facts before any comment is released and be consistent in your communications. The tone may vary – between how you say something to staff compared to residents’ families – but the facts need to be the same. This has nothing to do with “spinning” a story.
Have a good plan
A good plan will have the following features:
- It will be clear, easy to understand and follow;
- It will include draft statements for situations that are likely to have an impact on reputation. These should be taken as drafts – not final – and will need to be adapted to the situation. A plan must also be updated regularly as people change;
- It will be reviewed regularly with key staff (every six months); and
- It will be kept on mobile devices, as well as in the office.
As you are putting together this register of reputational risk and responses I would suggest that you have your board, management and an external party review it to make sure it is as robust as possible.
Two other things need to be mentioned. One is training. Your staff need to be trained so they are properly prepared for any issue and they understand the plan and their roles. Your executives also need to be media trained, to be able to speak competently on behalf of the centre. It may seem daunting but dealing with the media is not as scary as it appears – if you are prepared.
Secondly and finally, we live in a world of social media, eager to amplify the smallest transgressions with the ability to transmit information to tens of thousands within seconds. Remind employees about social media policy and remind them not to post their opinions about work matters. Social media, like potential crises, never switches off.
Gail D’Arcy is a media crisis management expert with The D’Arcy Partnership. She has previously worked with airlines, cruise operators and aged care facilities. Ms D’Arcy was a speaker at the ACSA National Summit this month.
The Four Corners investigation Who Cares? goes to air on Monday 17th September at 8.30pm.
Comment below to have your say on this story