Robert Davies, a public relations and crisis communications specialist at Stephensons Solicitors LLP provides a guide to care home managers on handling enquiries by the media as a result of a poor CQC inspection or enforcement action by the regulator.
Findings by the CQC are a matter of public record and the chances of local, regional or even national news journalists taking an interest are high. This means – for many providers – receiving a call from an interested publication is a case of when, not if.
Every business owner knows that ‘cash is king’, but public relations professionals will argue that reputation is the single most valuable asset any organisation can have. Building a good reputation takes time, resources and money. What’s more, it is far more difficult to replace than an existing source of revenue.
Bad press coverage puts that reputation at risk.
What should we be doing to prepare?
Preparing for media interest will need involvement from all levels of the organisation, but your front-line administrative staff should be the immediate priority.
Your telephone staff are likely to be the first to face a journalist enquiry and will be understandably nervous about doing so. A fear of saying the wrong thing can lead to rash decisions. It is not uncommon to hear stories from the sector where administrative staff have simply hung up on journalists rather than be put on the spot for a comment.
The first step is to ease the concerns of your staff. They should remember that journalists are people too. They have a job to do and it is not their sole aim to tear a hard-won reputation to shreds. Equally though, it is not their job to paint your situation in a favourable light.
Second, impress upon your staff that they are not spokespeople. They are not permitted to – nor expected to – make a response on behalf of your organisation. Their function is to politely and efficiently get the enquiry where it needs to go – namely, to your organisation’s appointed media spokesperson.
This should be the most senior member of staff – preferably the manager or business owner – with direct responsibility and influence over the day-to-day running of the home.
If your staff are unable to pass the enquiry through to the media spokesman, there is a risk that the journalist will go to print without you having the opportunity to provide any comment whatsoever. Make sure your media spokesperson is available, on-site and off, even outside office hours.
What happens when we receive an enquiry?
Unless you have pre-emptively drafted statements for the media it is unlikely you will be in a position to respond to the journalist straight away. In any case, I would always advise taking a short time to consider the specifics of the journalist’s enquiry.
When a call comes in, there are three things you will need to ascertain: What is the reason for the journalist calling? When do they need to hear back from you? And, what are their contact details?
The first point will help inform your response. The second will provide a time frame for doing so.
The third is fairly self-explanatory, but there is a balance to be struck between respecting the time-frame requested by the journalist and making sure you have enough time to provide a proper, response. If you believe the journalist is being unreasonable with the deadline they have set you are entitled to ask for more time.
What should we say?
One major consideration will be avoiding saying anything which might compromise your position with the CQC – particularly if legal proceedings are ongoing.
However, any response should include as much information as possible. Being vague or evasive is likely to only damage your organisation’s reputation further and feed the perception that you are unable or unwilling to face up to the findings against you.
Equally, any response should be authentic to your organisation. If your communications say your home is ‘honest’, ‘caring’, ‘compassionate’ etc. your response should at the very least match these standards, if not surpass them. Avoid defaulting to stiff, wordy business-speak which could come across as inexplicit or cold.
How do we keep track?
It’s easy to get distracted or feel overwhelmed, particularly when fielding multiple media enquiries. Many organisations will simply fall into the trap of reacting and forget to think ahead.
If one regional newspaper has requested a comment, it is not unreasonable to assume that other regional and local titles will contact you. If the findings against you are particularly serious, you may expect enquiries from national and broadcast media.
Have all the relevant material to hand, including an approved ‘stock comment’ from your organisation’s spokesperson, direct ‘out of office’ contact details for that spokesperson which can be passed to the journalist and a record of which publications you have spoken to, when, and any agreed future conversations.