Chapter Contents


The Role of Internal Communications
Critical, Proactive, and Transparent External Communications
Dealing With the Media
Responding to Negative Narratives
Advocating for the Government Support You Need
Lessons Learned: Transparent Communications


The Role of Internal Communications

During the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, LeadingAge members found themselves in an information universe changing faster than ever before. Understanding of the virus, epidemiological advice, government guidelines and regulations, and the progress of infections changed constantly.

Many LeadingAge members adopted a mantra during the coronavirus pandemic: “Communication, communication, communication.” Residents, clients, families, employees, board members, and other stakeholders needed to be informed of the state of the virus in their communities first (before the media and other external audiences), fully, and fast. The principles at work in good communication during this crisis can be applied to future emergencies as well.

Frequent Communication With Families

Ramping up regular communications with all stakeholders during the pandemic was a critical first step. Providers instituted conference calls, created frequent video messages from leaders, shared frequent email updates, and posted regularly on websites and in social media—all to ensure that everyone in their communities stayed informed. Note in the following examples how providers use a variety of communications modalities to reach people in many different ways.

The need to transparently keep all parties informed, unfortunately, involved sharing bad news. Such notifications must be balanced by the privacy rights of those who are infected and HIPAA regulations. Here are some letter templates:

Multiple Platforms & Modes of Communication

Communication with all audiences should happen on all your organization’s communications platforms. Repeat important information and reinforce your messages consistently in newsletters, emails, websites, social media, mailed correspondence, bulletin boards, and any other ways you reach the people in your community.

Empathy and Reasons for Hope

In addition to informing internal stakeholders, providers must also look for ways to keep residents, clients, staff, and families engaged and hopeful in a time of crisis that may be filled with fear, uncertainty, and sorrow. Creating uplifting experiences and facilitating easy communication, like those that follow, are equally important during a pandemic.

Member Ideas & Inspiration stories:

The need to transparently keep all parties informed, unfortunately, involved sharing bad news. Such notifications must be balanced by the privacy rights of those who are infected and HIPAA regulations.

Member videos:

Critical, Proactive, and Transparent External Communications

Every provider should have a crisis communication plan that includes multiple elements for communicating both internally and externally.

Even in difficult times, providers must maintain a public face as a part of their local health care system, as members of their wider community, and as attractive service options for future residents or clients. In a pandemic that disproportionately affects older adults, the news media will be a constant and often critical audience.

Transparency and open communication are crucial to establishing your organization’s credibility and ensuring that each of your audiences know the facts and view your organization as a trusted source of information. It is crucial to tell the truth, tell it first, tell it fully, and tell it fast.

Crisis Communications Plan

As a result of a pandemic, providers are likely to have news to share with the community and may even receive a surge of media interest. A good plan guarantees a quick release of information and a consistent message at all times. It should, ideally, be written in advance and updated to address the needs of the specific crisis; as the situation changes, update it frequently.

The points below provide a framework for organizations developing messaging for media consumption and/or responding to press queries about diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in their organization. Tailor the content below, as needed, to your setting.

Define Your Team: A crisis communication team should be identified, with roles outlined in advance. It’s best to identify a single person with good communication skills as the spokesperson for the organization. This could be your CEO/executive director or another executive. This person’s actions will influence how your stakeholders react to the situation.

Define Your Message: Simple, agreed-upon language about your organization, who it serves, and the values it upholds should be developed in advance. Keep the language straightforward. Provide facts without violating privacy. Explain the steps your organization is taking and emphasize your organization’s collaboration with public health organizations.

Prepare Strategies: Obviously, the contours of each crisis will make it unique, and not everything can be anticipated. But the plan should include at least a set of general strategies for a variety of situations, like statements to release if your organization deals with infection or deaths.

Develop Contact Lists: Maintain updated information about local government agencies, public health departments, police and fire departments, key suppliers, and other health care providers. In addition, keep a list of local media, focused on journalists who are knowledgeable about older adult services and health care. As calls come in, record names and contact information of every reporter who calls and with whom you are in communication. Up-to-date reporter contact information is crucial to building media relationships.

Assess, Review, and Refine: Plan to regroup with your team after the crisis has passed, to assess how the plan was executed, including how to improve your processes for a future crisis event.

Resources:

Transparency and open communication are crucial to establishing your organization’s credibility and ensuring that each of your audiences know the facts and view your organization as a trusted source of information. It is crucial to tell the truth, tell it first, tell it fully, and tell it fast.

Dealing With the Media

The experience of our field during the coronavirus pandemic—in which aging services providers were at ground zero for the worst effects of the disease—should inform our future approach to external communications. Older adult services will likely be not just a focus, but the focus, of media interest in similar situations. Here are tips for dealing with the media:

  • Inform staff that any queries about the case must be directed to your organization’s designated media spokesperson when word of a diagnosed case is shared with residents/clients, families, staff, and others in your community. You want to maintain control of the message.
  • Anticipate what you will need should reporters call. While you do not have to disclose all details of the situation in your public statements, you should be prepared to respond to any question, and those responses should have the same approvals as the statement.
  • If you do not know the answer to an anticipated question, it is appropriate to say, “At this time, we do not have the answer to your question. We will provide updates as we learn more,” and then be sure to provide updates when you have them.
  • Anticipate follow-up questions and consider developing a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document to distribute to interested media.

Resources:

Responding to Negative Narratives

Despite the incredibly challenging conditions of a pandemic, aging services providers continued to take a calm, caring, and thoughtful approach in this public health crisis. The stark reality is, however, that this truth of your value and the complexity of your operations is not always understood by the media and the wider public. In the face of a pandemic, providers may be forced to continue to fight long-standing, negative narratives.

Social media is at its most powerful for providers when it offers a window on the positive culture within their communities. Uplifting pictures and videos of residents participating in activities, along with staff’s hard work, have great impact. Prioritize Facebook, which is the most popular platform among older adults, and designate staff who will be responsible for posting no fewer than 3 social media posts per week. Like all other modes of communication, social media presents the voice of your organization to the world, so be sure to have a working approval process in place.

Also consider proactive media outreach, to highlight positive and inspiring stories from the pandemic. It’s not always easy to get coverage for good news, but it’s worth trying to elevate bright spots in your community.

The stark reality is […] that [the] truth of your value and the complexity of your operations is not always understood by the media and the wider public. In the face of a pandemic, providers may be forced to continue to fight long-standing, negative narratives.

Advocating for the Government Support You Need

Though LeadingAge has staff who regularly talk to members of Congress, there is nothing more important to legislators on Capitol Hill than hearing from their own constituents. Your story can draw a picture better than any graph or table. Combining our efforts in DC with advocacy activities and examples from our members and the people they serve has a real impact.

In a serious crisis such as a pandemic, in which media and public attention is even more heavily focused on services for older adults—and may have an intensely negative character—it’s even more important that legislators hear about what you face in serving residents and clients.

  • Make Your Voice Heard offers templates and suggested language on specific issues, allowing users to contact their representatives in Washington.
  • LeadingAge’s Advocacy Champions Toolkit includes advice on advocating via district meetings and events, email, phone, letters to the editor, and social media.
  • Coffee Chats With Congress is a campaign to help LeadingAge members set up conversations with their legislators, to talk about the good work they’re doing and the challenges their communities encounter. Download a Coffee Chat With Congress Toolkit and join us as we educate our members of Congress on the issues facing our members and residents every day.
  • The Federal Legislation Tracker offers facts about bills LeadingAge is following in Congress, along with summaries and LeadingAge positions.
  • The State Legislation tracker offers snapshots of aging services-related legislation enacted in state houses across the country, updated twice yearly.
  • For more in-depth information on state-level legislation, link to LeadingAge’s State Partners’ websites.

LeadingAge audio interviews involving communication with government:

Lessons Learned: Transparent Communications

In the midst of an emergency as impactful as a pandemic, we must often act first and reflect later. It’s common for leaders to ask themselves retrospective questions, such as:

  • Did I act too quickly or too slowly?
  • What could I have done differently?
  • Did my approach of choice work as well as I anticipated it would?
  • How can I improve my responses if a pandemic recurs?

And then, of course, there is a lengthy series of “What ifs” that we ponder.

LeadingAge has received numerous lessons learned tips from members during the COVID-19 pandemic, which we are sharing at the conclusion of each related Playbook Section. In addition, a compilation of shared Lessons Learned may be referenced in the Playbook Appendix.

LeadingAge audio interviews involving communications:

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