Effective crisis communication essential when health is on the line

January 12, 2012 by Jonathan Hemus

Concerns and coverage about potentially faulty breast implants produced by French company Poly Implant Prothese (PIP) continue more than two weeks after the story first broke.  This is a long time for a crisis to be in the media spotlight and indicates that crisis communication has been sub-optimal at best.

Indeed, a statement from the Independent Healthcare Advisory Services, the trade body which represents private clinics, accuses the government of communicating in a way which leaves people “feeling more confused and anxious now than before”.  It’s another reminder that effective crisis communication is essential when people are concerned for their health.

Women have been bombarded with mixed messages, which only increase their worries. While the UK authorities assert that there is no need to remove implants, countries such as France, Venezuela, Germany and Czech Republic have suggested that women have their implants removed as precautionary measures. According to the Lancet Medical Journal, it is ‘quite literally incredible’ for UK health officials to expect women not to worry.

The communication problem has been further exacerbated by the many and varied media spokespeople who have appeared on our televisions and radios over the last few weeks.  Everyone from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) through to individual cosmetic surgeons, trade associations, agony aunts, celebrities, government and patients have had their say.

So what makes for an effective media spokesperson during a health scare? We investigated this subject a couple of years back when, together with the University of Wolverhampton, we conducted research into swine flu communication. We looked at a range of spokespeople and used focus groups to assess their effectiveness and the reasons for their success – or lack of it.

The research clearly showed that high profile spokespeople have enormous power to reassure and inform the public in the event of a health scare.  Equally, they have the ability to cause unnecessary confusion, distress and concern if they fail to communicate effectively.  They need to recognise that this position of power also brings with it responsibility

We also identified the personal ingredients which defined a successful spokesperson at the time of a health scare.  Expressed as an equation, they are:

CS SA PA AA = Reassurance (where CS is Credible Spokesperson, SA is Serious Appearance, PA is Personable Approach and AA is Actionable Advice)

Equally, credible spokespeople – doctors, scientists, academics – who provide worrying insights without clear and actionable advice can cause significant public anxiety. Given the impact that this communication has on the public, there’s a strong case for saying that people who are unable to match up to this set of criteria should not be put in front of the media during a major health scare.

Media training can help to identify whether a spokesperson is up the job or not, but also requires the potential commentator to be honest with themselves about their capabilities – or have a colleague who’s sufficiently honest and courageous to tell them the truth.

Having the ability to communicate effectively with the media is important at all times, but when your communication skills can affect the decisions someone makes about their health, I’d suggest it’s essential.

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