A small but important step forward for NHS trusts’ crisis comms
There are few more worrying prospects for a healthcare leader than a cyber attack, extreme weather or other sudden event disrupting or halting frontline operations.
When such an incident strikes, internal and external communications are critical to maintaining order and safety, quashing misinformation, maintaining stakeholder trust, and more. It is thus welcome to see that the NHS’s Business Continuity Management Toolkit has recently been updated, with a new section on communications added to the site business continuity plan template.
That section is sensible, albeit brief at just 73 words, outlining the need for “clear and concise communications procedures… both internal and external” in continuity plans, and that this must include “procedures for warning and informing the public”.
The section highlights the need to consider media relations as part of a “unified approach”, and to align with information governance standards.
This is a small but important intervention. This is not to say that there is currently a shortfall in this area, however. Our experience is that NHS trusts and healthcare providers often have strong, regularly-updated business continuity plans, and that all but the most flimsy will give significant space to the communications element needed to make such plans a success.
In addition, many business continuity professionals are themselves good communicators, while communications and PR consultants are acutely aware that no part of their role is more important than crisis handling. This combination means that, on paper, there is every reason for the communications of a plan to go as smoothly as the plan itself.
However, it doesn’t always work out this way in practice. In our experience, this is sometimes because insufficient attention has been paid to translating the large amounts of business continuity information into communications-specific formats. Another frequent weakness is that, no matter how much you plan for having a lot of media and stakeholder requests during a crisis, it is easy to become overwhelmed when push comes to shove. This is particularly troubling given that the way a story plays out is often overwhelmingly dictated by the content and tone of the early messaging, and how quickly you are able to proactively correct any inaccuracies. Happily, the template’s new 73-word section certainly points towards the need to anticipate these issues.
Patients and families
However, they don’t address another common mistake, which is that organisations’ continuity plans sometimes lack consideration of the emotional needs of patients and their families. Even though this matter is always on the NHS’s mind, it needs to be in even clearer focus during moments of greatest adversity. Communications to these groups can be hugely influential in the success of the whole continuity operation: the happier you can keep them, the more likely it is that everything else will go smoothly. This has never been more true than when there is ‘duty of candour’ legislation requiring NHS trusts to be open and transparent, as a failure to do so could result in lengthy, damaging legal challenges.
If the new template’s new 73 words prompt more people to consider crisis communications’ critical place within business continuity planning, then they will be a positive change. They could quite literally be a lifesaver, if by ensuring a hospital can keep staff informed in a moment of crisis, they are better able to perform their duties.