Managing Health Care Reputations Is a Special Case

October 16, 2014


Adapted from remarks by Paul Dusseault, APR, senior partner and ARC-certified crisis counselor at FleishmanHillard, to the June 29 national meeting of the American Health Lawyers Association in New York

Pity the health care provider. Reputational challenges dog all businesses, of course, but health-care clinics, hospitals, physician groups and the like labor under a unique and onerous yoke of reputational considerations unlike in any other industry. Here are some of the issues that they need to be aware of:

• The public holds health care to a higher standard than other businesses.

Consider the hospital that last year was compelled to deal with an illustrative “crisis.” A lab technician, a staffer with no patient contact at all, left his dog in his parked car while he worked the third shift on a cold night. A passer-by noticed, and instead of calling the man’s supervisor, a parking garage manager or hospital administrators, he called the local TV station. The news director dispatched a video crew to record poor Fido shivering in the backseat and to collect the hospital’s official defensive media statement on this “issue.” If the stupid pet owner had been a factory worker at the aluminum fabrication plant in the same town, this incident would not have been news. But in health care? You bet it was. The implication: If this hospital’s employees treat their dogs this way, imagine what they’re doing to your Aunt Edna in Room 422! In health care, in the public’s mind, every staffer is caring for patients.

• Health care is assumed to be a “calling.”

Every year, newspapers breathlessly report on the multimillion-dollar compensation packages of area hospital CEOs. Even though the packages of CEOs in other industries where executives manage complicated enterprises are much higher, critics are unimpressed. The phrase “for-profit hospital” clangs against the ear like “for-profit church.” Most people would be appalled to discover that hospitals (not-for-profits included) have business plans that specify quotas for surgeries, deliveries, MRIs and BMTs.
And yet, what institution could survive, let alone thrive, without such hard-nosed, dispassionate considerations? Every hospital has the word “caring” in its mission statement, and many are named for saints, but none would survive without trained, competent businesspeople who could easily step into similar positions at Home Depot, GM or PepsiCo.

• Health care is a well-lit stage.

It’s not just breaking news such as police shootings, bus accidents and tornadoes that land at the hospital, but also gradually evolving hot-button issues like public safety, tax policy, class conflict and race relations. And in health care, such issues have a face. And a name. And a family.

Topics that are otherwise intangible become all too real when an individual is sick or injured, and story-seeking assignment editors, speech writers and lobbyists can’t resist bringing these issues to light. Immigration reform, for instance, is just an academic concept until a pregnant, undocumented Latina shows up in labor at the emergency room. Hospitals, therefore, are forced into a lot of news in which they have no real stake, and can be painted as “for” or “against” positions that they would prefer not to have any public point-of-view on.

• One hand is always tied.

Because of how federal patient privacy rules are written, anyone can say practically anything about a health-care provider, and the provider can’t respond. Of course, protecting patient privacy is a social good, but in today’s media world of citizen journalism, where outlandish claims are posted and promulgated with no semblance of verification, the table is set for an outpouring of slander.

• Bad news is inevitable.

One of the reasons we work hard with our health-care clients to generate a steady drumbeat of positive news is that we know, as a matter of fact, this bank account of community good will be tapped for withdrawals. There will be bad news, because, after all, not everyone leaves the hospital.

Is it any wonder, then, that public statements from health-care providers during challenging episodes sound cautious and similar to one another? There is too much pressure to even try to ad-lib. The margin for reputational error is too small. Better to follow the formula:

• Expression of sympathy, preferably personal. “Our hearts go out to the family of XXX. As parents ourselves, we know the pain of YYYY can be devastating.”

• Expression of earnestness and urgency. “We take such questions very seriously and have launched our own investigation to get to the bottom of the situation.”

• Reference to communication barriers. “Of course, legal restrictions prohibit us from commenting on specific cases.”

• Engagement and/or reference to independent third parties. “We are cooperating fully with law enforcement officials and will strictly adhere to all pertinent federal regulations.”

• Allusion to transparency. “We will provide additional updates as releasable information becomes available.”

If you’re looking for creative writing, then don’t look to health-care crisis communications. Given all the constraints particular to the business of health care, it’s a tough job. I’m just thankful there is someone who will do it, and do it well. I’m thankful someone has the calling.


Paul Dusseault, APR

Paul Dusseault, APR, leads the corporate reputation practice at KWI Consulting. Contact him at


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