By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications
Using assisted living and nursing homes as case study examples, this article
is applicable to any organization undergoing a merger or acquisition.
Although many industries continue to struggle with the after-effects of COVID-19, perhaps no segment of the economy has suffered as extensively as the long-term care industry.
According to the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, an estimated 400 nursing homes were projected to close by the end of 2022. More are expected to shut their doors in 2023. Those in the industry know very well how pandemic-fueled staffing shortages and dwindling reimbursements for care have combined to place inordinate pressures on even the best-managed facilities, but the decision to close or sell can still come as a significant shock to the outside world.
Breaking the news to residents, families, staff, suppliers and local communities requires careful messaging and precise timing to help preserve the reputation of organizations forced to make hard decisions that often run directly counter to their mission and values. Although not crises per se, these are high-stakes situations that require the same approach to communications that sudden, unexpected and reputation-threatening events demand.
In other words, they should be announced using a comprehensive communication strategy designed to maintain support among stakeholders – including those who may be facing unemployment or the need to find new housing in a market with limited good options.
Here are some of the elements taken from the crisis communications playbook that we employ to help clients successfully announce this life-changing news.
Identify the groups that need to know. Take the time to carefully consider everyone who will be affected. Don’t forget to add important influencers such as vendors, donors, volunteers, referral sources and local officials.
Map out the order in which stakeholders will hear the news. You have a hierarchy among the groups that are important to you. Board members need to know before vendors. Major donors should hear before casual contributors. Directors should hear before line staff. Families need to hear as soon as residents hear.
Recognize that news does not keep. In a world where social media serves as a primary news source for many, you need to realize that announcements shared with one group will quickly reach others thanks to personal Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. You want to make sure that each group important to you hears the news directly from you, not from others who may distort or omit important details. That means orchestrating your announcement with precision and having as small a gap as possible between the time you inform your first stakeholder group and your last.
Make sure everyone hears the same story. A critical first step in creating a communications plan for an announcement involving a closure or ownership change is deciding what to say. The second is communicating that information consistently. Yes, your board will know more details than your employees, but the basic facts should not differ from one group to another. Creating a core group of messages and sticking to them will help reduce the amount of misinformation and confusion your announcement generates.
Use the communication method that works for each audience. Every organization has a different culture. In some, employees hear important news from their managers, who have heard it from their directors, etc. In others, everyone gets an email from the ED. Others congregate for an all-staff meeting.
When announcing a significant change, use the channel you’ve already established for each audience – unless there’s a compelling reason to do something different. Making sure the announcement goes out as planned, to every critical group, in precisely the right order and at the right time is complicated enough without testing out new technology or some other novel presentation approach that hasn’t been used before.
Remember special cases. Organizations making significant announcements need to keep in mind the individuals and groups that need special attention to make sure they hear the news appropriately. Senior living facilities that run 24/7 operations will need to find a way to make sure second and third shift staff don’t get overlooked when the news is announced at 9 a.m. Significant donors who typically get a personal call from the board chair may feel slighted when they receive the same email message as less generous contributors.
Don’t stop with an initial announcement. In the days after an announcement of significant change, those most affected may still be absorbing the news. Set up a process for those who have questions to get answers. Keep an ear to the ground to make sure the news you thought you were sharing has been received that way. Be ready to address concerns before your non-crisis event evolves into a situation that needs crisis management skills.
And finally, remember that change typically takes time to become reality. Keep your stakeholders in the loop as you implement your change so they understand what is happening and – ideally – accept the reasons that went into the decision. If you have set a date to cease operations, make sure to remind residents and others as critical dates in the timeline approach. If a new owner is coming on board, find a way to introduce the new management team as soon as possible and give residents and families the opportunity to ask questions and discuss the changes the new team intends to put in place.
Most important, keep in mind that individuals are more likely to accept news that is delivered with respect and compassion. A well-structured communications plan can help an organization convey its appreciation for the immense impact this type of news will have on those involved and will let them know they will have support as they adapt to new ownership, new staff and, potentially, new homes.
Nora Jacobs is senior vice president at Hennes Communications, one of the few firms in North America focused exclusively on crisis management and crisis communications. Nora is an experienced crisis communications counselor with three decades of agency and corporate experience.
This article first appeared, with permission, in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.