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Crisis Communication: Getting into that Operational Rhythm

How the Medical University of South Carolina, a 700-bed medical center with six colleges, honed its crisis communications strategy and methodology and was able to continue operations during Hurricane Florence last September.

As Hurricane Florence whipped through the Carolinas creating havoc last September, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) had deployed its crisis communications operation to maintain continuity of operations to the Carolinas’ only comprehensive academic health center in South Carolina.

The university consists of a 700-bed medical center and six colleges. The medical center cares for very ill patients, from infants to the elderly and has no choice but to continue that care during a weather event like Florence.

Although the academic part of MUSC was closed during the hurricane, the medical university received a shelter-in-place waiver from the state to allow for 72-96-hour shifts by hospital personnel.

“We’re a very large academic medical center, but we need to maintain the continuity of operations on our medical side, whereas other hospitals along the coast don’t have the same resources or preparedness capabilities that we have and close and we will get their patients,” said Bryan Wood, MUSC emergency manager. “We need to maintain critical care to our community and work as a team with so many moving parts.”

The biggest challenge during an event like Florence is enterprisewide communications: making sure everyone is on the same page, understands the threat, timelines and operational status and communicating that to different staff who have different functions.

Most of the staff on the medical campus wear multiple hats so there is no one-size-fits-all message to send out. “As an academic medical and health sciences center, there may be an individual who is not just a care provider, they may also be involved in the education of students, perhaps, or residents, or nursing or pharmacy or research lab,” said Heather Woolwine, public affairs and media relations director.

So, there must be different messages for each group of people. “It gets complicated,” Woolwine said. “Trying to find a balance for us and making sure that we’re giving people the appropriate information that they should rely on us for versus us becoming weather forecasters.”

That means developing a system for segmented messaging. MUSC uses the Rave Alert system for its messaging, which is segmented to different groups and sent out via different means, including text, email and social media.

It’s crucial to reach every staff member (that’s why names are purged from the system or added every 24 hours) and crucial not to overwhelm people with messages that miss the mark.

“If you give them a crisis communication message and it takes them 15 minutes to get through it and they decide there’s nothing of value in the message, you’ve lost them,” Wood said. “You can send them 500 messages and they won’t read them.”

The balance is giving everyone the information that’s appropriate from an enterprisewide level and empowering managers and other leaders to take those messages, “and say, OK, here’s what this means for us or here’s the specific thing we want you to know,” Woolwine said.

You want the 10,000-foot-view approach and to create a mechanism where those specific messages will get out from the enterprise message to the intended audience. “It’s taken us a few years to get to that place,” said Woolwine.

Planning is everything in getting to that place, and Wood said it took inviting people into the crisis communications task force who weren’t necessarily in the communications world but who had information to share even if they didn’t realize it. 

Another piece of the message is to ensure that the families of staff are taken care of. “If they’re worried about their families and house, they’re really not performing at the top level, so that’s another of our bedrock philosophies,” Wood said.

When a storm approaches and is five or six days out, management then begins the communication process, sending out that “pre-storm arrival message and assembling teams A and B. Team A is the team that “rides out” the storm for the first 72 to 96 hours, and team B the one that is on call, ready to come on for recovery.

“That’s kind of the preparation stage,” Woolwine said. “Once we get into that operational rhythm and hunkered down, that’s when we pick up the messaging cadence and move into that three, sometimes four specific times during the day that coincide with big leadership and staffing phone calls to talk about issues and concerns.”

Those three or four phone calls come at the same time each day and come even if there is nothing new to share other than “Here is the last message.”

“People get very used to expecting that messaging in a number of different formats around the same times each day,” Woolwine said. “People like their information in different ways and we try to accommodate that.”

A key lesson from Florence? Perhaps just one that was reiterated and that is not to spoon feed information but provide “breadcrumbs” of information that’s useful.

“I think that’s huge in today’s day and age of message fatigue,” Wood said. “Every emergency manager has to be so cognizant of message fatigue. You don’t want to turn people off from your messaging.”