A Tale of Two Hospitals

Reputation Management in the Wake of Ebola

As hospitals hustle to shore up their procedures for treating Ebola in the aftermath of the disease’s chaotic arrival in our country, I couldn’t help but notice lessons marketers and communicators in any industry could take away from this situation in terms of brand identity management. No matter how carefully you have worked to build your brand reputation, it can all be lost if your company is unprepared for communicating in a potential crisis situation.

When the sh*t hits the fan, reputations can be lost or strengthened within days or even hours.

As the events unfolded on a national and global stage, two hospitals in particular caught my attention: Emory University in Atlanta, for its proactive, prepared approach to receiving the first Ebola patient to be treated in the U.S., and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, for the way it fumbled, not only in treating Ebola patients but in communicating with the rest of the country about a quickly changing situation.

To be fair, not many U.S. hospitals would have been completely prepared for a patient with Ebola to show up in their emergency room. And Ebola is a particularly volatile issue due to its far-reaching ramifications, public fear of infection, and the abundance of misinformation. But Presbyterian’s leadership should have been front and center, conveying a consistent message, even if that message was, “We don’t know yet, but we’re working around the clock to find out.” Instead, there seemed to be no central spokesperson and the hospital issued written statements instead of talking to the media directly. The slow communication left room for rumor and misinformation to spread. It did eventually issue an apology for the miss-steps it had made, it may have been too little, too late.

“This was a textbook example of how not to handle crisis communications, and I’m sure PR classes will be studying this for years,” Gail Cooksey, a PR consultant who has worked with North Texas companies for decades, said in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article. As a result, the hospital’s brand and reputation suffered a significant blow, at least in the short term and possibly for good.

Emory, in contrast, reinforced its brand awareness and its standing in the community during this critical time. They had a crisis communications plan in place well in advance of the event, staff trained and prepared. Emory’s top leaders promptly and publicly reinforced consistent messages in a compassionate, reassuring and factual manner and conveyed breaking news through direct channels to employees and stake holders first.

Staff continued the calm, clear messaging in social media channels and was trained to stay on point rather than be hijacked by comments stoking fear and misinformation. In fact, Emory’s seamless management of this global news story worked so well that Ragan’s Health Care Communication News published a white paper sharing a detailed discussion of how the Emory communications team navigated this uniquely difficult situation. The hospital’s brand identity and community trust is probably stronger than ever today.

Emory’s experience underscores the importance of the timeless Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”