After intense scrutiny, several government inquiries and reviews and major legislative change, the aged care sector is now the subject of a Royal Commission. The scrutiny will increase exponentially in the build up to, and during, the Royal Commission and providers must prepare accordingly, write Nick Albrow and Peter Wilkinson.
Following recent Royal Commissions into the banking industry and institutional responses to sex abuse, our view is that this Royal Commission will be as tough as, if not tougher than, both.
First, you need a strategy and it must have buy-in from the executive and board. Under the media spotlight stress exposes division at the top. The banks have done a lot of preparation, and it shows. They have set a benchmark on how to be witnesses, and how to deal with media in the aftermath.
A key strategy is to anticipate outcomes of the Commission and achieve them before you are called. Achieve them too, if you are not called, as staff and customers will expect it. For example, staff ratios will be a key issue and a response that “Each staffing situation is unique” won’t cut it.
Nimbleness will be crucial and only comes with preparation.
Learn from other Royal Commissions
The hearings will be highly emotive.
The current Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry and the Royal Commission into Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse provide guidance of what to expect. The personal stories told regarding aged care will damage reputations of providers and individuals.
It is likely careers will be destroyed due to insufficient preparation and weak key messages. There are no good outcomes; it’s a case of moving very bad to less bad and beginning the long process of rebuilding trust by being transparent, admitting mistakes and acting to remedy them.
To maintain the confidence of stakeholders, providers must ensure that no surprises are unearthed by the Commission. This means undertaking painful internal reviews and communicating the findings to critical (including internal) stakeholders.
It is the first step in rebuilding trust and it is better to root out issues now than having them emerge for the first time in the full glare of the Royal Commission.
Staff can be your key advocates
Worryingly, more than 1300 aged care staff came forward to share their grievances with Four Corners. This suggests a breakdown in trust between leaders and frontline staff. Providers must address this immediately. Put processes in place to ensure you are listening, and responding, to employee concerns. This required care with key messages, and rehearsal.
Communicate with stakeholders.
Develop a comprehensive communications plan across all stakeholders as part of your strategy.
Providers will receive questions and complaints from concerned family members and residents. This will ramp up during the Royal Commission, including for providers not giving evidence.
Prepare and rehearse what you will communicate to stakeholders, how it will be communicated, and who it will be communicated by.
Prepare and practice
Preparation is key. Every provider in the country should be prepared to face the full glare of the Royal Commission, whether or not they are appearing. We know from experience that complainants will be hustling to get in front of the Commission after it has started hearing evidence.
It is difficult to overemphasise how much preparation and resources are required to effectively manage the situation.
Factor in the political environment
Politicians will probably compete to be seen to be taking the strongest actions. They will be a key stakeholder. How strong are your local and federal relationships? Keep in mind that they will use this event to score political points.
Sorry, but that won’t do
Many of the instances highlighted by Four Corners deserve apologies from providers. However, people are already numb to ‘sorry’ – having heard it from the child care and financial institutions.
Messages underpinned by action
Providers must have a strong set of messages underpinned by facts and actions – there is no room for fluff or accepting low standards.
The best retailers, for example, are striving for zero complaints where even one is unacceptable. Blaming a few bad apples or saying issues are inevitable can appear as blame-shifting.
If the spokesperson of your organisation is not prepped, get him or her up-to-speed as soon as possible, or identify an alternative. This will probably also apply to those not giving evidence at the Commission. In our experience spokespeople in these high stress situations are the major backstop to your organisation’s reputation.
Nick Albrow is a consultant at leading communications firm Wilkinson Butler. Prior to moving to Australia, he advised several aged care providers in England.
Peter Wilkinson is chair of Wilkinson Butler and a crisis communications expert. He has guided organisations through public inquiries and Royal Commissions.
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