Thought Leadership

How Healthcare Leaders Can Prepare: Crisis Playbook Development and Best Practices  

Evan Harris
By Evan Harris
posted Jun 28, 2023

Authored by: Evan Harris and Mike Petrone

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Theodore Roosevelt was talking about leadership, but he might as well have been discussing crisis communications. Crisis and reputational issues move fast, but too often, crisis communications plans fail to serve their purpose or aren’t used at all in the heat of the moment.

The complicated operations and large footprint of hospitals and health systems mean that a crisis event or reputation issue can escalate out of control quickly. Moving past COVID, healthcare workers and their leaders face increasing threats to their operations, safety, and reputation.

The rise in violence against healthcare workers, cybersecurity threats to sensitive data, increased political turmoil, attacks against the value and purpose of hospital care and protests or boycotts all seem possible. Add in the “normal” operations of caring for patients and there’s a lot our health systems need to prepare for.

Hospital leaders need to be prepared for the unthinkable before it happens. We’re not just talking holding statements or a decision tree; we’re talking a full-scale playbook to assess, evaluate, respond to, and monitor a crisis.

If you’re thinking about dusting off that old draft or wondering where to begin for bringing your response playbook into this decade, here are key considerations to help you prepare:

Dust Off Your Old Playbook

Working with health systems from across the country, we’ve seen crisis playbooks in all shapes and sizes. Some playbooks missed key strategies like social monitoring. Others were written before most social media platforms existed. There’s no shame in dusting off an old playbook versus starting from scratch. Take stock of what technology, operations, and personnel have changed.

Fill Gaps with Feedback

Did your hospital experience a recent crisis? Is a staff member experienced with reputational issues or crisis situations? Is your playbook so old that Instagram wasn’t even invented yet? As you assess your crisis playbook, begin to interview clinical and hospital leadership and document their feedback to better understand what has worked and what has gone wrong during past crises.

Determine Response Levels

The first step in a crisis response or reputational issue may be to determine if you need to respond at all. As a best practice, we’ve found having different response levels helps health systems make decisions around crisis communications. For example, a “Level One” crisis may mean you need to monitor social media activity or prepare a holding statement for a regulatory issue or legislative activity. “Level Three” would be a full-fledged crisis response due to an event that threatens the safety of staff, patients, or the community.

Establish a Team

Once you’ve decided to respond to a crisis or reputational issue, you’ll need a team to manage the crisis. No crisis team will look the same. This group will be built from existing staff and give team members roles and responsibilities in their area of expertise. Don’t forget decision trees, reporting and coordinating communications outside of normal working hours is common. Incidents and crisis don’t conveniently happen during standard working hours. Be sure to include subject matter experts and additional support staff like legal and IT.

Trust the Process

A comprehensive crisis communications playbook will have a detailed process that outlines everything. This includes reporting an incident, escalating the response, building the crisis team, specific timelines for communicating to internal and external audiences, maintaining regular communications, and monitoring.

It’s a detailed process on purpose. Each step is vital to ensuring accurate information is relayed at the right time. The playbook will need to account for all the ways your organization shares information – intranet, staff communication apps, patient emails and SMS, media release, website – and who will share your communications, including how and when it will be distributed based on audience. For health systems, that’s a long list of audiences that need timely communication. The good news is that preparedness does not only exist on paper. Run crisis simulations with your team to ensure they know how to use the playbook and how their role might evolve during a potential crisis event.

Let the Crisis Team Work

It may be tempting to kick decisions, messaging and response to health system executives or even the board. Likewise, executive leaders, health systems CEOs and board members, along with elected officials and key stakeholder are going to reach out on their own for updates about the crisis response. Put bluntly, the crisis teams needs autonomy and decision-making to respond in real time. A playbook should offer solutions for regular updates to executives and key stakeholders without interrupting or jeopardizing crisis management.

Get After Action Reporting

We all know that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Build an after-action reporting and measurement plan into your crisis communications playbook. Put hard deadlines. Get feedback from staff. Be transparent about what happened and put a timeline together to address challenges to the organization.  

There’s an old military saying that says no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Or, as Mike Tyson so eloquently put it, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” No crisis is the same and no response will be either. You will need to be flexible and adapt to any crisis or reputational event. Updating that crisis playbook or plan will save you from guessing about what your next move is and may help you better respond to the next crisis.

Want to talk more about our learnings and work in this space? Reach out to our team to learn more.