Dr. Mehmet Oz is in crisis communications mode. He has been making headlines in the media as medical colleagues criticize him for advice he gives and things he says on his syndicated television program.
His hometown newspaper, the New Jersey Register, asked for my opinion on how Oz has begun to attack his critics. You can read the full article here:
When a crisis comes, you can communicate or remain silent. My advice is that if the crisis is the result of criticism and you feel the criticism is unfair, then defending yourself by attacking your critics is a strong tactic. Oz has been on the attack against his critics, sighting that they have ulterior motives.
If the media tell the story of your critics, you must reach out to the media to tell your story. Too many executives caught up in a crisis or controversy in the media, believe in the flawed old adage that, “You should never get in a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” (I address this in Lesson 7 of my book Don’t Talk to the Media Until…).
Here are 5 ways to address critics:
1) Call a news conference and point out the flaws in their statements.
2) Write letters to the editor to all publications that publish erroneous criticism from your opponents. Keep the letter to about 150 – 200 words.
3) Post a longer version of your letter to your own website.
4) Think carefully before taking your fight to social media. The haters can get ugly fast and make the problem worse.
5) Never underestimate the power of taking out ads in major publications so you can print your full letter.
Don’t let a critic hurt your brand, your reputation or your revenue.
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Social media complicates crisis communications, especially when an expert is pitted against alarmists and detractors on social media. Crisis communications and crisis management get more difficult when the social media alarmist is a celebrity.
Donald Trump has taken to his Twitter account to say that people with Ebola should not be brought to the United States. His assertion detracts from what I think has been a brilliant job by the medical community to provide media training for doctors and physicians, while having a plan to manage crisis communications about the outbreak.
Doctors and physicians trained as spokespeople to be interviewed by the media have gone to great lengths to discuss the layers of protection put in place to keep the Ebola infection from spreading as two ill health workers were flown to the United States for treatment. The messages in the media have served to calm fears in a country where conventional wisdom or logic might lead one to believe Ebola could spread quickly in the U.S. if infected patients are intentionally brought here.
In a crisis, you must:
1) Plan and write your messaging on a clear sunny day
2) Be ready to turn on a dime if those who disagree with your message start to get traction.
The safety message is one that clearly needs to be written and approved long before it is never needed. Good crisis communications should be judged by how well you prepare on a clear sunny day and not how well you wing it in the heat of the crisis.
Twitter sadly gives visibility to detractors. In this case, Donald Trump, with 2.65 million followers, has tweeted these 3 tweets:
“A doctor on NBC Nightly News agreed with me-we should not bring Ebola into our country through 2 patients, but should bring docs to them.”
“Doctors have already died treating Ebola. We should not be importing the disease to our homeland.”
“The bigger problem with Ebola is all of the people coming into the U.S. from West Africa who may be infected with the disease. STOP FLIGHTS!”
What would you do if this happened to you? What expert advice would you give to your employer or client?
Donald Trump is notorious for picking fights and escalating a situation, so the medical community has to proceed with caution before fighting back on Twitter. Sometimes, the proper way to address crisis communications on social media is to respond in kind through the same social media channel. Yet that isn’t necessarily true on Twitter, nor is it true with a Donald Trump type celebrity who has a huge, loyal following who agrees with his political philosophy or agenda d’jour.
In a crisis, your communications to a detractor can easily get ugly. You have to harness the proper amount of cutting pith, while not letting it cross the line into overt anger. You must carefully zero in on your key detractor, yet carefully avoid turning it into a personality battle.
In social media, when the detractor has a huge ego, a huge budget, and a huge following, you have to consider how your response might positively or negatively escalate the war of words. You must consider whether escalating the war of words will get your message out to the world more effectively or whether it gives greater visibility to the negative comments of your detractor.
The message the medical community needs to convey is this:
“As experts in medicine, we are able to gather the top experts in disease prevention to both quarantine ill patients, as well as to take steps that may save their lives. At a time like this, we call on everyone to let the experts do what they do best, while ignoring the non-expert publicity seekers who deal in fear and not facts.”
This crisis statement could be written many ways. Often it is the editing fight and parsing of the words that makes a statement stronger, yet sometimes the editing delays the speed at which the message reaches the intended audience while making the statement weaker.
The crisis statement does not name Trump specifically, but has a bit of a bite with the phrase, “…the non-expert publicity seekers.” My guess is 50% of you would want to leave it in and 50% would want to take it out. I’d leave it in.
Media also love a good compare and contrast quote. This crisis statement clearly separates medical experts from fear mongers.
I would never advise taking this fight to Trump on Twitter. I would, however, get this message to all media outlets and specifically to all medical correspondents and all media facilities. Keep in mind, local media are interviewing local doctors at local hospitals from New York to New Orleans. In a crisis like this, you want an army of experts on your side.
The hazard of posting a 140 character version of this message to Twitter and Facebook is that these social media platforms tend to attract more non-expert publicity seeking fear mongers. My expert advice would be to post the message to your secure website, then send direct tweets to the media with a link to your official statement. Your direct message would say, “Ebola infection update (add your link)”
Trust me, you’ll get your message to the media. If you have the overwhelming urge to use your Facebook and Twitter, you might post the identical link. There is some safety in not posting the “fighting words,” but to post a calming link.
This may also be a good time to create a YouTube message. YouTube allows the emotions of the speaker to be displayed through both the visual elements and the tone of their voice. However, YouTube comments and shares may get ugly as well. But, if someone shares your video with a negative comment, the person who sees the video may be persuaded to your side.
In a crisis, there are many challenging decisions to make in a short period of time. My hope is that you are a bit stressed out right now. That’s good. Imagine if you had to fight this fight in real time? Imagine if you had to come up with all of this logic on the fly? Imagine if you had to fight with a room full of executives who disagreed with your approach?
A great way to manage your crisis communications and crisis management team in a crisis is to hold frequent crisis drills that play out a scenario with this level of complication. You should have at least one crisis communication drill each year and every drill must have complicated twists and turns of social media embedded in them. I pride myself on making drills so realistic that spokespeople cry. Occasionally we have to call a time-out because an executive is clutching his chest because the scenario is so realistic and the stress is so real.
Are you ready to deal with a crisis this stressful?
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The current Ebola crisis has the media calling upon their medical experts to communicate about infected patients being flown to the United States for treatment.
Media training for this type of crisis requires you to have a plan for how your doctors and physicians will respond if they are called upon to talk with reporters. Every employer needs to be prepared to follow these same rules. When talking about the health of an employee or a patient, HIPPA rules – the Federal rules that govern patient privacy — essentially prohibit a doctor or employer from talking about the patient.
Yet the media want details; details a treating physician cannot give; details the employer cannot give.
The three secrets to an intelligent interview answer that satisfies the media are to:
1) Set the context of the situation
2) Politely admonish the reporter
3) Speak in generalities
An artful answer may look like this:
“First, we need to recognize that because of Federal laws governing a patient’s privacy, I’m not allowed to give any specifics about this patient and neither should the media. In general I can say that a patient with Ebola can be safely quarantined because the virus is not transmitted by breathing in the infection, but only by contact with blood or body fluids.”
The medical experts and reporters on the network news programs have done a brilliant job of walking this fine line when being interviewed by their networks and reporters. An increasing number of reporters are more aware of HIPPA rules, but many are not, while others try to trick the spokesperson into saying something.
Here is the key: The media need a good sound bite or quote. Write a good sound bite then train the spokesperson to deliver it in a masterful way to the media.
On the NBC Today Show Monday morning, the doctor spokesperson from Emory University Hospital, where the patient is being treated, does a good job of not violating the patient’s privacy. It is an interview worth watching.
If we dissect the interview a bit further, here are a few things to note:
NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie states in her question, “I know that you can’t say much, if anything about the patient, under your care, but let me just try. Can you confirm that he is improving this morning?”
The doctor responds by saying, “I really can’t comment on the clinical condition of the patient. That comes specifically from the request of the patient and his family.”
The answer is an okay answer that doesn’t violate HIPPA. However, to a reporter and the audience, it may seem like something important is not being said or that the spokesperson or doctor is hiding something, when in fact they are just protecting the patient. Granted, doctors are not professional spokespeople, which is why they require extra media training when talking about a crisis like this. Granted, the doctor needs to be focused on the patient and not the media, which is why regular media training with doctors, when there is no crisis, is the best way to have them ready for a future crisis.
An abrupt answer like that is known as a “block.” A “block” is more acceptable when it is combined with a “bridge” and a “hook.” The bridge allows you to bridge to an acceptable answer and then hook the reporter and viewer with new information and a quote.
A better answer would follow my guidelines above and sounds like this:
“First, we need to recognize that because of Federal laws governing a patient’s privacy, I’m not allowed to give any specifics about this patient and neither should the media. In general I can say that a patient with Ebola can be safely quarantined because the virus is not transmitted by breathing in the infection, but only by contact with blood or body fluids. While I cannot comment on the prognosis or any progress about this patient, I can say that our institution is optimistic that we have the right facilities and right physicians to treat someone with Ebola, which is why the patient has been flown here from Africa.”
Using this technique, the doctor doesn’t just block the reporter’s question, but also bridges to useable information.
In the PR department at Emory, the media trainer and the PR team are likely calling this interview a success… and they should… and it is, because the doctor walked the fine line of HIPPA. But with a slight bit more training and practice, the doctor can be taught to use the full block-bridge-hook technique, for a more polished answer.
For all of you who must media train a spokesperson, realize that you can go from good to great with just a few minor adjustments in an answer. Regular media training goes a long way to make your spokespeople great.
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