Category Archives: Crisis Communications

Breached: Tips for Rebuilding Trust After a HIPAA Violation

It finally happened. After years of helping hospitals communicate with patients about data breaches, I recently found myself on the receiving end of one of those letters. The language was factual, yet cold. I was advised to review my credit report and bank accounts carefully and given some oh-so-helpful tips to help keep my information safe (wait, wasn’t that their job?)

Frustrating? Yes. But I’m hardly alone. With more than 90 hipaa-violationpercent of hospitals reporting at least one data breach in the past two years, more patients are learning their personal information isn’t as safe as they thought. While data breaches at big box stores and restaurants may grab more headlines, healthcare breaches cut deeper. Fair or not, doctors and hospitals are held to a higher standard, which makes communication all the more important.

Here are a few simple – yet often overlooked –tips providers can use to minimize fallout when communicating a breach:

Act Fast – While providers have 60-days to notify patients and media of a breach, waiting until the last minute only invites questions. Make sure a communications representative has a seat at the table from the beginning – and begin sharing information as soon as you have all of the facts.

Transparency Is Key – Be upfront. Provide patients with as much information as you are able so they can make informed decisions. While it may feel counterintuitive to share the details of a negative event, transparency breeds trust and often reduces the amount of follow-up required.  The same approach applies to media notification when necessary.

Be Human – Patient notices often feel sterile and devoid of emotion – not exactly what most people expect when communicating with their healthcare provider. While the breach notification rule requires the inclusion of specific information, the letter shouldn’t read like a legal document. Use plain English to let patients know that you value their trust and take the matter seriously.

Be Prepared – Designate a single point of contact to handle calls from concerned patients and make sure those calls are returned promptly. Frontline employees, physicians and leaders should be provided with general talking points and trained on where to refer patients with specific questions. Also consider developing a media statement to use if questions arise – even when external notice is not required.

While there’s no way to completely soften the blow of bad news, good communication can go a long way in preserving hard-won trust.


Rebecca Kirkham is the Senior Vice President at Lovell Communications. You can view more of Rebecca’s blogs here. Connect with Rebecca at

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An Apology Goes a Long Way

GM CEO Atones for Company Recall, Communications Crisis

I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for a good apology. And I’m more likely to give a second chance when it seems genuine and sincere. So, as the driver of a GM car, I’ve watched with interest the GM recall crisis play out on Capitol Hill and in the media.

Of course, I’m slightly annoyed that I will have take time to go to the auto dealer to see if I'm sorry 4my vehicle is still safe to drive to work, church and weekend soccer tournaments. However, the bigger the question is, will the current issues at GM and the way the company has responded influence my next car purchase?

Corporate apologies as well as the individual mea culpa have become fairly commonplace. A New York Times article published in February described the “art of the apology” as, “Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are ‘taking responsibility’ and then end with, ‘I hope to put this behind me.’” The article went on to say some feel apologies happen too frequently and called for an immediate end to the scourge.

I searched Google and found an overwhelming number of public apologies and requests for a second, third and sometimes fourth do-over. Target’s CFO apologized for its cybersecurity breach; Gary Oldman acknowledged culturally insensitive remarks he made in a recent interview; and just this weekend, Facebook executives asked for a pardon in the court of public opinion after completing a secret experiment in 2012 that manipulated users’ moods.

GM CEO Mary Barra is no exception. She testified before Congress, met privately with families who lost loved ones allegedly due to defective vehicles and most recently sat down for a multi-segment interview with The Today Show’s Matt Lauer. In all these interactions, she has apologized for the company’s transgressions and has vowed employees won’t forget this sad chapter so it’s never repeated. (When asked about theories that suggest the intelligent, charismatic car company executive and mother was named CEO to lessen the negative impact of the recall disclosure that was on the horizon, Barra scoffed at the notion. She quickly plowed ahead in the interview, fully committed to restoring GM’s good name and reputation.)

I contend apologies should continue to be a mainstay and a vital component of a comprehensive crisis communications strategy. And despite what lawyers might say, leaders can apologize and express sympathy without it being construed as an omission of guilt. However there is an art to making amends.

  • Apologies should be focused and straightforward. The message should be clear and concise, helping to accomplish your overarching goal of atoning for the mistake. CEOs should resist the urge to provide too many details and make explanations, which could be misinterpreted as excuses.
  • Executives should express sympathy for those affected by the issue.
  • The organization’s leader should discuss how the error occurred and what the company will do to prevent a similar error in the future, whether a procedure change, process improvement or cultural shift, making sure not to over-promise and under-deliver.
  • CEOs should acknowledge the organization’s mission and values, even if the misstep isn’t congruent, and commit to realigning the company and its employees with them.

As for me, I’ll see how the GM issues play out over time before deciding on my loyalty to the GM brand. In the meantime, check out Rosemary Plorin’s blog post “The ‘Sorry’ Word Works” and Entertainment Weekly’s chronicle of the 19 best apologies in the last 20 years.

What do you think about the current onslaught of the mea culpa? Has a corporate apology made you more or less brand loyal?



Treat the Cause, Not the Symptoms

With technological advances come new perils for the workplace that have both operational and brand protection implications.

  • A physician office manager posts a comment on social media inquiring about a patient’s specific medical condition, resulting in a HIPAA violation.
  • An unencrypted flash drive with protected health information (PHI) is stolen from the vehicle of a physician practice employee, costing the practice fines of $150,000.
  • A health plan’s photocopiers are returned to a leasing agent still containing PHI stored on their hard drives, resulting in a $1.2 million settlement.

Incidents like these examples result in ramifications from negative publicity to hefty fines and other enforcement every day.

So what’s an organization to do?

Unfortunately, some organizations approach the issue by treating the symptoms instead of the cause, banning social media in the workplace altogether (good luck with that in the era of the smartphone, by the way) or locking USB ports to prevent users from plugging in removable flash drives. (The latter in no way prevents an unscrupulous employee from simply uploading data to the cloud or emailing it, of course.)

You wouldn’t ban office supplies because you had an employee who was stealing them, or rid the office of computers because of an employee who prefers video games to work. You’d warn, discipline or dismiss the employee. New-age disciplinary problems need to be treated similarly by addressing the problem employee behavior, not the digital platform via which it occurred.

While there’s no easy fix to certain high-stakes risks, smart organizational leaders ensure they have proper policies, procedures and plans in place, that employees receive proper training and periodic re-training, and take the appropriate disciplinary actions against employees who violate policies.

How many of these policies and plans does your organization have in place to help protect itself from reputational harm?

1. A clear, strong social media policy, updated regularly as the world of social media evolves. If large, publicly held companies like Coca-Cola can have both a social media policy and a robust social engagement strategy, your organization can, too.

2. Healthcare providers and other “covered entities” as defined by HIPAA will find a social media policy is just as important as its other HIPAA-related policies and procedures. These policies are essential to ensure the organization is doing everything it should to safeguard protected health information (PHI).

3. Beyond PHI, data breach is a constant concern for organizations from national retailers to local school systems that hold personally identifiable information (PII). Along with adequate data protection protocols, any organization with records that contain PII should establish a clear data breach response plan to ensure a prompt response and mitigate negative consequences in the event of a breach.

4. Speaking of responding promptly and mitigating consequences, does your organization have a crisis response plan? “Unimaginable” crises can range from a shooter in the workplace to major fire or flood damage to allegations of criminal activity or the unexpected death of a high-profile company executive. Smart organizations don’t leave such things to chance; they have a thorough plan for how their team will react in a time of crisis to minimize impacts to customers, employees and reputation.

If you have all the applicable policies, procedures and plans in place, congratulations. You’re on the right track. But don’t forget, without the proper employee training and retraining to go with them, they’re just taking up space on your bookshelf…or your server. Do your policies – and the way you use them – need a check-up?


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Study: Facebooking During a Crisis is Good PR

A new study shows that posting to Facebook during a time of crisis can help improve an organization’s overall image.

Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Journalism created two fictional universities and gave study participants news stories about crises occurring at each. After the participants read the stories, the researchers measured participants’ attitudes toward each institution, as well as their perceptions of the severity of each crisis. Then participants were shown Facebook posts from the universities’ main Facebook accounts that delivered additional information and messages directly from the universities. Researchers tested attitudes once more.

After reading the Facebook posts, participants’ attitudes were significantly more positive than they had been after reading the news stories alone. Participants also thought the crises were less severe following the Facebook posts.

Study author Seoyeon Hong said:  “Many studies have already shown how important crisis management is for organizations. This study shows that Facebook can be a valuable tool for public relations professionals when working to solve or lessen the severity of a crisis. Because Facebook is very personal for its users, well-thought-out crisis management messages can be effective at reaching users on a personal level, which is a powerful way to persuade people to a cause.”

We’d like to know what you think. Would reading about a crisis from an organization’s Facebook account improve your perception? Or have you ever used social media to help communicate during a crisis?

Leave your story in the comments below.

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When Two Worlds Collide: M&A Communications During the Integration Challenge

As a professional with extensive experience in international mergers and acquisitions, I often hear that mergers and acquisitions rarely live up to the original intent behind the deal.  Bain & Company recently published a report of their findings from research they conducted on M&A activity from 2000 to 2010, and they found that companies that pursued mergers and acquisitions as part of their growth strategy outpaced the growth of companies that did not.  Most interestingly, companies with more aggressive M&A strategies outperformed companies with moderate M&A activity.

Negative sentiment toward M&A is largely framed by the big failures – like the AOL and When Two Worlds Collide: M&A Communications Time Warner merger, the largest merger in corporate history. (At the time of that merger, I was working with Vodafone, based in the U.K., on their hostile bid for Mannesmann in Germany, an acquisition also discussed as the largest merger on record.  With AOL Time Warner’s friendly announcement, the Vodafone Mannesmann merger which followed soon thereafter became the largest hostile bid on record.) The reasons for failed mergers are many, but in my experience, successful integration of the merged companies poses one of the greatest obstacles to success.

Companies generally do a very good job of defining the rationale for an M&A deal and conducting the required due diligence to ensure the right fit.  Unfortunately, after investing substantial money, time, and energy into making the deal happen, management teams often fail to plan adequately for assimilating the two corporate cultures into a new cohesive unit.  Constructive integration is doable, and management teams can plan ahead for a successful M&A outcome:

1)      Assign a dedicated team focused exclusively on the tasks following the announcement.  As an extension of the due diligence team and within the dictates of regulatory guidelines related to the industry and the specific transaction, this integration team should be appointed as soon as management begins its due diligence so that the team has ample time to develop a comprehensive integration plan.  You might think this timing is premature given that so many deals don’t make it through the due-diligence process.  But companies lose valuable time and momentum when they wait until the closing of the deal.  One critical mistake in the integration process:  management teams spend too much time trying to find the answers to very important questions after the deal is signed when they should be executing decisions made far in advance.

2)      Define how the merged company will look in six months and in one year, and then develop the action plan that will get you there. Companies have very specific objectives with each merger or acquisition.  Make sure the merged company stays true to those objectives, and consider the impact those objectives will have on every business unit, employee, and customer, and be aware of the changes that will have to occur to reach the six-month and one-year corporate vision.

3)      Test the action plan to ensure that it matches the original rationale and objectives of the merger.  Make sure you consider all scenarios and outcomes.  Integration teams can reduce the risk of failure when they identify the pitfalls before they happen.

4)      Consider your audiences.  Employees, customers, and business partners have firm loyalties, and a merged company must develop strategies to win these individuals and groups over to a new corporate culture and brand.

5)      Develop effective messaging.  Just because you understand the rationale of the merger doesn’t mean everyone else does.  Each audience has unique motivators that bring them to the brand.  Some of these motivators are rational and some are emotional.  Effective messaging will be consistent across all groups, but it will also be specific to address the motivators of each group.

Change is hard.  Even though the benefits of the merger or acquisition are real, employees will have adjustments to make and new relationships to build.  Customers may be asked to embrace a new, or at least modified, brand despite the fact that they love the old one.  Business partners may question their relevance in the newly merged entity.  These are just some of the audiences.  Integration strategy plans for all these scenarios – and many more!  It is about more than announcing the deal in an email.  A successful integration plan brings people together as a team to appreciate the value of the newly merged or acquired company.

M&A can bring dynamic opportunities to a company:  expanded markets, diverse customers, innovative technologies, and new products.  Companies need not fear M&A activity as long as management understands the merger is not completed with the announcement or closing of the deal.  The real work has just begun.  With appropriate advance planning and timely implementation of the integration plan, companies can improve their competitive strength with sales growth, profit growth, and shareholder value.



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Medical drama misses mark on crisis PR

I’ve always been a fan of the television medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” a show that follows the fictional lives of surgical interns and residents as they evolve into expert physicians at a Seattle hospital. Even in the seasons when the writers seemed to be on an extended vacation (season four), the show’s complex characters and medical challenges have continued to hold my interest.

Usually, when the show’s medical content strays from reality, I don’t let it bother me. After all, it’s fiction. But a few weeks ago, “Grey’s” ventured into hospital crisis communications – or rather, a fictionalized version of it – and I couldn’t keep myself from feeling agitated.

Here’s the short version: The hospital discovers that one of its surgeons has unknowingly passed a fatal infection to several patients. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has investigators on site who pinpoint the source of the problem and provide oversight for eradicating the issue. One hospital leader suggests putting out a press release explaining why the CDC is in town, but his colleagues nix the idea. Viewers are left to believe the hospital sits on its hands in terms of communications (and does a bad job of dodging patient questions) until it simply issues a press release after the crisis is over. And by “issuing a press release” I mean handing it to a young patient who wants to be a journalist so she can scoop the other media in town.

Are you ripping your hair out yet? The show completely ignores the communications steps that a hospital should, and hopefully would, take during such a crisis. In fact, nobody even seems that concerned with developing a crisis communications plan to answer questions from patients, staff and the general public. There’s no talk of how the news could negatively impact the hospital’s reputation and admissions if it isn’t handled properly. Who knows what was in that press release handed over with such nonchalance, but I guess the hospital thinks it says enough to avoid the likely storm of negative press and frightened calls from patients.

Of course, as anyone who has ever seen public relations portrayed in mainstream media knows, it’s highly unlikely that a medical drama would take the time to give crisis communications the airtime it could consume. But it made me wonder why, if it was going to get such flippant treatment, was communication strategy mentioned at all.

You may not be a “Grey’s” fan, but I know you know what I’m talking about. What is your favorite – or least favorite – television portrayal of public relations?

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Lululemon Navigates ‘The Great American Yoga Pant Crisis’

While walking by a Lululemon Athletica Inc. store in Nashville last week, I noticed the words “The Great American Yoga Pant Crisis” across the store front window. Thank goodness we survived the controversy, but will the company?

Since Lululemon last month announced a recall of women’s black Luon yoga pants due to sheerness and issued a warning of a yoga pants shortage, there has been a steady media buzz on the story from parodies on late night talk shows to social media. News outlets around the globe seem unable to resist the temptation to make a pun in the headlines.

All jokes aside, the recall amounts to 17 percent of all women’s pants sold in Lululemon stores and the company adjusted their first quarter revenue projections down between $333 million to $343 million from previous expected revenues between $350 million to $355 million. With competitors such as Nike and Under Armour trying to woo customers through aggressive campaigns, the quality control issue at Lululemon is a serious one.

Last week, the company announced its chief product officer was stepping down, and they instituted new senior level capabilities in quality, raw materials and production. These actions are positive steps to remedy the situation and avoid a repeat in the future that will go a long way to ensure consumer and shareholder confidence. Consider the following tips to successfully navigate a PR crisis:

Take responsibility. In the case of Lululemon, the company initially stated quality problems were due to an overseas supplier. The company later accepted partial responsibility and said its testing protocols were incomplete and the fabric used in the pants was “on the low end of Lululemon’s tolerance scale” Accepting responsibility for the lapse in quality was the right move to help restore trust in the company’s leadership and products.

Act swiftly. Once you know the facts on the issue, scope and potential impact on the company, develop a communications action plan and follow it through. It’s critical to have the necessary tools in place to effectively communicate to both internal and external audiences. These tools should include key messages, FAQs, media response statements, social media responses and internal communications such as a letter to employees so everyone is informed and empowered to communicate to key stakeholders as appropriate.

Respect customers. Customers are more powerful than ever, taking to social networks to rave about their favorite brands and rant about them when they make a mistake. In light of the yoga pants issue, Lululemon pulled products from store shelves and offered refunds to customers. The refund policy initially drew some criticism but was clarified and ultimately a successful strategy to repair customer relationships and get beyond the controversy.

Lululemon may have taken a few hits when the story broke but as long as the company continues to focus on improving its production processes they should be able to weather this storm with their reputation and loyal customers intact.

What do you think? How did Lululemon handle the PR crisis? What impact will it have on the company?


Don’t Mind the Bed Bugs, and Other Communication Tips

For the past year, my fiancé and I have been renting a condo in a large and fairly new building in Washington, D.C. To keep residents informed of the various condo goings-on, the community manager distributes a weekly e-newsletter.

On occasion, we’ll get an unscheduled newsletter if there is an immediate issue or concern. Like the email we received at 8:18 p.m. on a recent Thursday, titled: Notice of Bedbug Sighting in Nearby Unit.

The email contained a short message referring to an attached notice and brochure and inviting recipients to “let me know if you have any questions.” Here’s the text of the email, with some of the building specifics removed: 

Please be advised that bed bugs were reported in a nearby unit. That unit is scheduled for treatment by a pest control company tomorrow. Management will obtain information from that company as to the observations and level of infestation as well as recommendations for additional treatment in nearby units. Should treatment in your Unit be recommended, you will be contacted by Management for scheduling.  

In the meantime, it is strongly recommended that you read the attached brochure, “Preventing and Getting Rid of Bed Bugs Safely” and inspect your unit for bed bugs according to the instructions.

Within the pest control industry, bed bugs are considered to be among the most insidious of pests and determining the origin of bed bugs in any given dwelling is nearly impossible due to their transient nature. While they are not known to transmit disease, their presence may cause a variety of negative physical health, mental health and economic consequences.

Community Management takes a very proactive and strategic approach to addressing the potential threat of bed bug infestation. Effective detection and elimination of bed bugs is a team effort; your cooperation is appreciated. 

The attached brochure was published by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene but the information is equally appurtenant to residents in Washington, D.C.

At that moment, I had lots of questions, such as:

  • What does “nearby” mean? Are we talking next door or four doors down?
  • The attached guide says all units adjacent, above and below should be inspected. Does that mean we’ll get another notice tomorrow if we are, in fact, next to an infested unit?
  • Who tells someone that their bed could be infested with bugs just hours before bedtime?
  • OMG, are we going to have to move?

The dinner that I had just put on the table sat steaming while we took flashlights to every mattress seam, baseboard crack and couch cushion in the apartment. Though we found no evidence of bugs, my skin crawled all evening and felt suspiciously itchy all night.

And it turns out the whole thing was a false alarm. From the next day’s newsletter: “A resident reported seeing one bed bug in their unit this week… The exterminator reported to management that no evidence of bed bugs was found in the unit.”

It got me to thinking about how this situation could have been handled better, so people (me) would not lose their minds mere hours before lights out. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to communicate some potentially distressing information, balancing (1) the possibility that nothing is wrong and you are needlessly scaring people, and (2) the possibility that not informing people will make the suspected problem worse (bugs, bugs everywhere), I’d recommend:

  • Get the facts – preferably all of them, or as many as you can – before doing anything else. We were talking about one bug. From what I’ve heard and read, these guys don’t leave home without their extended families, so I’m convinced it was something else entirely.
  • Be clear and be thorough. Choose your words wisely, try to anticipate questions and provide clear and complete answers in your communications. (What time was the pest control company coming? When will you notify us of the results? WHAT DOES NEARBY MEAN?)
  • Be responsive. When you receive questions, respond in timely manner.
  • Offer reassurance. The above email told me that bed bugs bite, it’s nearly impossible to determine their origin, and they can make you sick and/or crazy. It did not ask recipients to remain calm or offer assurances that every step would be taken to eradicate an infestation, should one be detected. (“addressing the potential threat” is not “killing the bugs.”)
  • Follow-up when more information becomes available. Thankfully, the community manager got this one right.

Is your skin crawling? I’d love to hear about your experiences with questionable communications practices, or how you would have handled this situation. Leave a comment!


It’s Etch A Sketch in a Landslide!

Every consumer brand dreams of a high-profile mention that suddenly propels its product it into the national spotlight.  Right?  Well, maybe.  What if the attention comes in a politically-charged environment?

That’s the situation in which Ohio Art, creator of Etch A Sketch, recently found itself. And the way the company responded is an excellent example of “grace under pressure” and great marketing.

Etch A Sketch’s moment in the spotlight came as the result of a comment made by an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In describing his candidate’s political positions, the aide said, “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You kind of shake it up and restart it all over again.”

The comment went viral and Ohio Art found itself with a potential opportunity or PR nightmare on its hands, depending on how you look at it. To its immense credit, the company made the most of its unintended moment of fame without weighing into a politically charged debate or alienating Americans of either the Republican or Democratic political parties.

Thus was born the Shake It Up, America website.  The home page states:

We stand firmly behind our proclamation that “We have a left knob and a right knob for each political party.” And “…when both work together, we can do loop de loops.” We’re especially serious about the loop do loops part. We call on you to shake it up, America! Exercise your freedom of self-expression by voting on Election Day, and drawing on your Etch A Sketch every day. Our political neutrality is unflappable. And our stance on self-expression is unshakable.”

A new ad campaign released in conjunction with the website featured headlines like:

“We have a left knob and a right knob for each political party.”

“Etch A Sketch is a lot like politics – there’s a lot of gray area.”

“Politically, we lean right down the middle. Which way do you lean?”

Each ad ends with the same statement at the bottom: “Etch A Sketch is proud to be part of the national debate.”


But wait, it gets better!  Now you can not only purchase Etch A Sketch with its traditional red frame, soon you can buy a blue or flag-themed version of the toy.

It’s a real pleasure to see how this iconic American brand took the high road, encouraged citizens to exercise their right to vote and turned an opportunity into a playful and notable campaign. And I know which color Etch A Sketch I’m ordering. How about you?



Virtual Meetings – How to Use Skype for Internal Communications

Today, companies can be widely dispersed. Employees may live in different cities or countries from where the organizations are centrally located. Younger generations may request working from home or the local coffee shop, saying they feel more comfortable and inspired outside of an office setting. Some companies may not even have an office, but a team of mobile employees collaborating through various new technologies. So what happens when an important discussion needs to take place between members of an organization who are not located in the same area? Well, you have the next best thing: a virtual meeting.

There are MANY services available to conduct virtual meetings; from highly robust and paid services to free and simple ones. Recently updated, the Google+ platform allows for online video conferencing which it calls “Hangouts.” Other major services include GoToMeeting and Cisco’s WebEx. And did you know Facebook also allows for video chats between friends?

Facebook video conferencing is actually powered by one of our favorite services that we highly recommend, Skype. Skype can be used for free video conferencing directly with another Skype user, including online messaging and file sending.  We recommend Skype to clients as a way to conduct meetings between organizational employees when not located in close enough proximity. If you haven’t tried it out already and would like to, Skype requires a quick set-up process before online communication can begin. To make it easy for you, we’ve created a How to Set Up Skype video below that will walk you through the process.

What services do you like using for virtual meetings? Please let us know your recommendations in the comments below!

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