January 27, 2015

Do You Have a Risk Communications Strategy?

With the recent Ebola scare, healthcare communicators were reminded of the importance of having strategies in place to address community concerns. We know that to successfully communicate with audiences we need to understand how people receive information and how open they are to receive our messages. The Ebola scare was a classic example of the value in having an ongoing Risk Communications strategy in place. To begin identifying your Risk Communication strategy, it’s important to start first by differentiating between Risk Communication and Crisis Communications.

Most hospitals have a Crisis Communications plan. The plan typically includes contact information for all essential personnel, authorized spokespersons, designated areas for media briefings and a multi-disciplined team appointed to assess any situation and recommend the hospital’s response.

However, because successful communication (including crisis communication) relies on audiences being receptive to messages, hospitals should ask themselves questions like:

  • Does the community know who we are?
  • Have we established a high level of trust with the community?
  • How did we handle a previous crisis?
  • Are our employees good ambassadors?
  • Are we perceived as being open, honest, responsive and community-oriented?

Defining Risk Communication

If Crisis Communication is typically surrounding communicating about an event at our organization—a fire, a security breach, a construction accident—then Risk Communication is focused on those events that often occur outside our organization’s walls, or outside of our control, but impacts our brands nonetheless.

In its simplest terms, Risk Communication is about understanding why people get upset about things that, in reality, may cause them little to no harm, and creating an ongoing strategy that manages this unique dynamic of emotional vs. analytical thinking. For example, the public, political and media response to the threat of Ebola was way out of proportion to the actual chance of Ebola spreading in the population. But, the more the CDC and other experts tried to assure the public of the low risk to the general population the more the concern seemed to grow.

Why do we sometimes react—both individually and collectively—in ways that defy rational thinking?

In his groundbreaking work Dr. Peter Sandman, a Risk Communication consultant based in New York, described situations in terms of Hazard vs. Outrage and why it is that we frequently see a high level of public “outrage” in situations where the degree of “hazard” is relatively low. Sandman also described the opposite case: where we know there is a high level of hazard but there is surprisingly low levels of consumer concern.

For hospitals, though, the former situation presents the bigger challenge to their communication and branding.

Successful communication rests with developing trusting relationships with audiences through community partnerships and other outreach efforts,  then demonstrating that our health care brands share patient and community concerns around issues.

This is not an easy or quick task. Risk communication studies have found that throwing out more statistics at consumers (or telling them they are flat-out wrong) leads them to hardening their positions or taking up another argument or point in opposition. In other words, if people believe X for several reasons, and read or hear something that undermines one of the reasons, they remind themselves of all their other reasons for believing X. So, their core belief is reinforced, despite the facts.

There are several strategies for addressing issues that create a high level of concern among our patients and communities, which should form the foundation for your Risk Communication strategies.

Among them:

  • Every few months, a national story emerges about hospitals and infection rates. When communicating to audiences concerned about your hospital’s infection rates, don’t focus on factual information (for the public one infection is too many). Instead, emphasize the positive things your hospital does for patients, their families, and the community as a whole.
  • Another effective way to communicate with audiences that have strong or fixed opinions and biases is to use, or partner with, a trusted source. In the case of Ebola, a better strategy might have been to have local health departments take the lead rather than a federal government recently tainted by recent VA and Secret Service scandals, and a perceived failure to keep Ebola from coming to America. In your community, who are trusted sources you can partner with should the need arise? When you’ve answered that question don’t wait till the need arises to begin forming those alliances. Start now.

Becoming a trusted institution and building alliances with community organizations should be a priority for hospitals, especially as the veil of transparency continues to lift. Effective risk communications strategies will take time, but if an institution has worked to build trust it will have a head start in communicating with patients and communities, and in building its brand.

From guest blogger, Peter Jump, a Public Relations Consultant based in Charlottesville, Virginia.