Negative Press Coverage Does Not “Blow Over”

As a professional who works to create influence, stature, credibility and legitimacy for my clients, one of the most uneducated statements that I hear all too often is the perceived notion that a negative media event is going to “blow over.”

In early September, I received several congressional meeting summaries and reports from a colleague on Capitol Hill detailing meetings that took place regarding the perceived lack of appropriate response by skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma last year. Discussions at the highest level of our government are taking place within committees and subcommittees, and among staffers and legislators, all of whom are probing into patient safety and quality of care issues within the long-term care industry. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) have outlined ongoing concerns about federal and state oversight in nursing homes, quality of patient care and emergency preparedness. Hurricanes were a key topic of discussion, per my colleague who was in attendance. But so were many other issues. It was the immediacy related to hurricanes that brought the subject front and center.

I have sat in meetings and heard people (even other public relations colleagues) say, “Oh, that headline will be dead in 10 minutes.” Or “Tonight’s big game will bury that headline by 6 p.m.”

There are only a few industries (like entertainment, sports and technology) where this may be true. But in healthcare where lives are at stake, it is the exact opposite.  

Here is a short list outlining why that doesn’t work:  

  • We live in a digital world where everything is alive, thriving and living in perpetuity. And information is available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. 
  • Negative perceptions in the media impact your revenue. Like it or not, buying decisions are being formed by what the media says about your company. And the media has a bigger megaphone than you do when it comes to spreading the news. (unless you have millions to spend on ad campaigns).
  • Clicks make money. Lots and lots of money! Some reporters are paid by the clicks that their articles produce. And a headline about nursing home abuse – even if its old news – will generate clicks. We find old news being regenerated all the time.
  • Big fish eat little fish. If a story in a local market gets lots of money-making clicks, bigger national outlets catch on and either syndicate the article or do their own reporting on the issue.
  • Google, with its sophisticated search algorithms, keeps every story alive and searchable. 

This is why I am totally dumbfounded when someone says (or worse, counsels an executive leader) that we don’t need to respond to a media inquiry, or we will just wait and let the story blow over. 

Every time I think this must be painfully obvious, I am reminded that maybe it isn’t and perhaps I need to say something. Perhaps it isn’t common knowledge. So here it is: Negative stories do not blow over on their own! You have to actively work at promoting the proactive and positive narrative a create balance in the news cycle.

When my friends and colleagues share intel from Capitol Hill, I am not at all surprised that the government is looking into specifically (if still unofficially) hurricane readiness.

Why? Again: Negative stories do not blow over on their own!  

Yes, there are bad reporters who write in haste or without proper editorial oversight. I talk about those folks all the time. But there are many smart and well-researched reporters out there. And here’s a little secret: our team talks to them all the time, and we feed them the research and the data to build accurate and credible stories about the long-term care industry! This is a complicated, high-regulated space that many people do not understand. It is important to establish yourself as an advocate for sharing accurate information.

And it’s not just hurricane response – skilled nursing has plenty of salacious topics that draw in reporters. In fact, you rarely hear about the good stories in skilled or other LTC facilities because the bad stuff sells better and the industry doesn’t do enough to invest in proactive communications programming.  

We have long counseled our clients in healthcare that “You will never make the bad stuff go away, but you can ALWAYS do more to promote the good stuff to tilt the scales in your favor.” There is a lot of good work being done that media do not cover. In fact, you only have to look at the smiling folks on many providers’ social media pages around any holiday (or many other times of the year) to see excellent caregivers and well cared-for patients or residents. Invest the time to mine the good news stories and share those stories and pictures with media. Take back control of your own narrative by sharing blogs and videos and photos from your facilities on your corporate website and through social media. Get to know the influencers in your communities – your city council members, your Fire Chief, your rotary club, and local hospital executives. 

Images of frail and elderly residents and patients sitting in sewage and chest-high flood waters are still very fresh in the minds of the families who lost loved ones in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017. No big surprise to us – the government is now showing that it is very concerned and making inquiries regarding the disaster readiness plans of long-term care providers. I am proud to say Trifecta worked very closely with Florida providers who did an amazing job during Irma. But in this industry, it doesn’t matter who survived or whose care was uninterrupted by the storm. It only matters who died. Who failed. Whose mom, dad, grandmother, etc. was the one sitting in the sewage.

It hurts the entire long-term care industry when providers do not take the necessary precautions to protect their brand. There are plenty of affordable steps providers can take to protect your people and your brand from a drawn-out media take down. But unless you have a plan in place to address negative media inquiries, create and maintain channels to promote your positive news and achievements, or aggressively address inaccurate reporting – negative stories will continue to haunt your organization for years and decades to come. And it will also cost you a lot more than the retainer fee for a sustainable, protective and proactive communications strategy.  

Counter balancing the negative news with positive news is an ongoing process. You must invest in generating positive news, control the stories you can and strategically manage the rest. Doing nothing will not make the bad news go away.

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