Crisis Management: Wage Peace! – A Good Crisis PR Strategy?: Crisis Response
A mentor once advised, “When in crisis, wage peace!”
That advice resonated after a front page story in The Wall Street Journal: “Doctors’ New Tool to Fight Lawsuits: Saying ‘I’m Sorry.’” It said doctors and hospitals, including Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, increasingly admit mistakes and apologize to patients.
The Journal told of an anesthesiologist who, after a near fatal error, wrote the patient that he was “deeply saddened” and later personally apologized. The patient dropped a planned lawsuit. The newspaper quoted a surgeon who apologized saying, “No matter how this happened, I was the surgeon in charge; I was the captain of the ship and I was responsible and I apologize for this.” The patient didn’t hire a lawyer and reached a settlement with the hospital.
A frequent hospital response to medical mistakes is “deny and defend,” and begin an average two year long legal struggle. Now, there is evidence open communication and apologies defuse confrontations and decrease settlement amounts. An insurance company spokesperson told the Journal that communication is a critical factor in whether there are lawsuits, and said her company even teaches doctors how to disclose errors and apologize.
The peace-making approach gained momentum with a 1999 Annals of Internal Medicine article “Risk Management: Extreme Honesty May Be the Best Policy.” While the authors said more research is needed, it appears that a conciliatory approach pays. They cited the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lexington, KY. Since 1987 the hospital has been following a policy of fully disclosing facts to patients who have been injured because of accidents or medical negligence, and fairly compensating them for injuries. The authors found the amount of settlements over a period of 7 years to be less, and said, “We believe this is due in part to the fact that the facility honestly notifies patients of substandard care and offers timely, comprehensive help filing claims; this diminishes the anger and desire for revenge that often motivate patients’ litigation.
The articles in Annals and the Journal repeatedly warned that the apology strategy has risks and research is not conclusive. Still, the “Extreme Honesty” authors said, “We conclude that an honest and forthright risk management policy that puts the patient’s interests first may be relatively inexpensive because it allows avoidance of lawsuit preparation, litigation, court judgments, and settlements at trial.
Within the realm of crisis management, this medical malpractice strategy embraces the PR philosophy: take care of victims or perceived victims; the victim is where the news story (and the lawsuit) is. If a person no longer feels like a victim, then you have less of a problem or none at all. (Incidentally, there is no practical distinction between genuine victims and “perceived” victims. Those who perceive they have been victimized, whether or not you agree, can still cause problems.)
For this open communication, victim-satisfying strategy to work, lawyers must orient toward resolution rather than confrontation. And resolution vs. confrontation may cut law firm income. Quick resolution vs. dragged out fight means fewer billable hours. Thus crisis resolution may have a built-in disincentive for lawyers. However, as long as lawyers put client interests first, as lawyers I work with do, then that should not be a problem.
I once lost a two-year PR effort that ended with the closing of a plant. The fatal error, in my opinion, is that we did not sufficiently deal with neighbors who claimed chemical emissions made them sick. Why did we avoid them? Pending lawsuits. Our well-intended lawyers worried we would give the neighbors ammunition to attack us in court. We worked hard to satisfy regulators instead. The neighbors counterattacked every move and ultimately won.
One year later, the company president told me he could have bought the property of the complaining neighbors and relocated them for ¼ the cost of going around them – and perhaps kept his plant open. A priceless insight three years too late.
Peace-making will not always be the correct strategy, but it sure looks like we ought to give it more of a try.