CEO Public Relations 101

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Maintaining a good relationship with the public is crucial for healthcare executives trying to build brand loyalty. Yet the modern chief executive officer often makes several mistakes when it comes to public relations, says Joy Scott, president and CEO of Scott Public Relations in Canoga Park, CA, a firm that specializes in healthcare communications. So which CEO PR blunders are the most common? Mistake #1: Thinking PR is just press releases and story pitches"Media relations is about 15 percent of what a good hospital PR person is going to be doing," says Kathleen L. Lewton, principal of Lewton, Seekins & Trester in Stamford, CT, which also counsels healthcare organizations in strategic marketing and public affairs. Even more important, she says, is building relationships with employees, physicians, board members and the community at large. If a CEO is willing, PR professionals can be a strategic asset, helping the organization build relationships with all of its key audiences, says Lewton. "PR professionals are more than just communicators delivering a message. If that's how you utilize them, you are really missing the full potential of the position." Mistake #2: Putting the PR department at the bottom of the organizational chartLewton contends it's time to add another seat to the leadership table: the chief public relations officer. "Make sure that your CPRO is an integral part of your senior management team," she says. This PR pro sees things from the community's point of view and understands how decisions will affect reputation more than any other member of the leadership team, she argues. "Public opinion can damage your organization more quickly than any legislation or reimbursement decision from Washington. And if you don't have a senior public relations officer as part of your organization, every minute of every day you're putting your reputation at risk."Mistake #3: Always stepping up to the mike in times of crisis In some situations-if a patient has died due to a medical error, or if the hospital is about to lay off a lot of people-the CEO must step up, says Fraser P. Seitel, a partner with Rivkin & Associates in Glen Rock, NJ, a consultancy that helps hospitals manage crisis communications. But, he warns, "Once you escalate a crisis to the top man or woman, you can never de-escalate it." A statement from the CEO sends the message that the crisis is dire. On the other hand, if you tap someone from PR to make an announcement, it sends the signal that the crisis is under control. "The tendency in hospitals to escalate every crisis to the CEO level is a mistake," he says. In a crisis, notes Seitel, lawyers will tell executives to do two things: Say "no comment," and say it slowly. But this is a major mistake, Seitel, Lewton and Scott agree. "You can't ever say 'no comment.' It's not advised, because it sounds like you don't care or you're trying to hide the truth," says Lewton. "'No comment', in print, looks harsh," Scott agrees. "It communicates an 'I don't care' attitude." If you really can't say much, make a neutral statement, telling the press that you are investigating the incident and working to deal with it as quickly as possible. -Gienna Shaw

A Media Relations PrimerHere are a few tips from Joy Scott head of Scott Public Relations to help hospital leaders deal with the media:

  • Take a cue from politicians: Stay on message. "Every media opportunity is the chance to communicate your messages, whatever the topic of the interview may be," says Scott. But don't be too much like a politician. "You can't just avoid answering unpleasant questions . that does look evasive."

  • Use a cheat sheet. These days, most media interviews are done over the telephone. Keep the main points you want to communicate in an interview in front of you so you can easily recover if the conversation starts to wander or if you lose your place.

  • Have a plan in place. Much has been written about external communication plans in a disaster scenario, but don't neglect to plan for something that happens inside the hospital. Determine beforehand who will speak to the press, says Scott (and remember, it's not always the CEO).

  • Consider media training. Even the most accomplished speaker can use some practice now and then. Role-playing exercises can help anyone who has contact with the media stay on message and feel more comfortable in front of the cameras.

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