New Union Crisis Communications Tactic Hurts Docs

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by Ken Hunter, APR, VP-Account Services

Many professionals who don’t have to work with crisis communications are frequently shocked when the communications battle suddenly comes to their own doorstep.

I recently advised a physician who said his hospital was being picketed by union workers who were trying to force his hospital to hire union construction people for an expansion project. Typically, the hospital would be the main focus of any pressure tactics brought by the union. However, this union took an infrequent, but sometimes effective, tack that introduced a unique dimension for crisis control.

The unions began to picket the offices of individual doctors who work at that hospital, specifically targeting doctors that had ever been sued for malpractice. The unions referenced the malpractice suits in their picket signs, clearly as a tactic to get the doctors to pressure the hospital to end this by hiring the union laborers.

Considering that one out of three doctors will have a malpractice suit at some point in their career, this wasn’t a difficult list of physicians to compile. But, the pressure that suddenly put on the doctors, which in turn they leveled at the hospital, quickly grew.

The advice from the hospital: show a united front, don’t react, it will go away.

But, the physicians’ point of view was quite different. From their perspective: decisions the hospital makes, over which we have no control, are effecting our reputations and livelihoods. No way will we sit on our hands!

So, the hospital had a sizeable dilemma, which neither they nor the doctors were expecting, but which the union knew would happen. This was an interesting turn of events.

Unions like to do emotional things and use communications tactics that are diversions from their core issues: pay and benefits. But, in this situation, patients are the doctors’ main concern, yet the hospital wasn’t focusing on doctors (or patients) as audiences of their communications messages. Worse, they had no idea how to help them to manage this situation.

This was a major mistake by the hospital in its crisis communications preparation, as the doctors are absolutely critical to a hospital’s well-being.

Any doctor picketed in this manner should have been prepared by the hospital about how they could discuss this issue with inquiring patients. Doctors may even have union members as patients, leading to uncomfortable exchanges in exam rooms. You can bet most every doctor wanted to attack the union and their tactics, but were ill-prepared because of very unsatisfying guidance from the hospital.

The hospital erred in not addressing all of their key constituencies in a seemingly straightforward union issue.

A key element of crisis communications this hospital is likely learning is that in the absence of being proactive with your messages during crisis situations, others are happy to fill the gap. Don’t let that happen – plan ahead!

–Ken Hunter, APR, Vice President-Account Services, R&J Public Relations

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