When an apology is best, but is not nearly enough given the error’s weight

Dr. Daniel Varga is having a bad week.

He’s chief clinical officer for Texas Health Resources, the medical group that oversees Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

As everyone likely knows, that’s the hospital responsible for treating America’s “index” patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola Oct. 6. Then two nurses caring for Duncan contracted the disease due to inadequate procedures at the hospital. And one took a weekend trip from Dallas to Cleveland and back.

There would be a Saturday Night Live skit in all of this if it weren’t so deadly serious.

Varga, who had the unenviable task today of testifying before Congressional committees, apologized for his hospital’s shoddy response. That’s good. And, he promised to do better in the future. That too can be beneficial. But six months from now, if Ebola is raging through the American population, neither will matter.

Varga said that “unfortunately, in our initial treatment of Mr. Duncan, despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes.”

“We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola. We are deeply sorry.”

In the short-term, we have to assume that Texas Presbyterian’s patient census is down and dwindling fast. Unless patients who want out find no open beds at other Dallas hospitals.

Nurses complained of inadequate training and poor procedures. There are probably hundreds of U.S. hospitals equally unprepared, but Duncan chose this one and the repercussions are everlasting.

The apology was not across the board though. When asked about nurses’ complaints, Wendell Watson, a Presbyterian spokesman, said:

“Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance very seriously. We have numerous measures in place to provide a safe working environment, including mandatory annual training and a 24/7 hotline and other mechanisms that allow for anonymous reporting.”

Really? The evidence seems otherwise.

As The New York Times reported:

Long regarded as one of the finest hospitals in Texas, Presbyterian has faced continuing criticism — first for its initial misdiagnosis of Mr. Duncan, which delayed his care and placed others at risk; then for issuing contradictory statements about why its doctors did not suspect Ebola; and now for failures in safety protocol that led to the infections of two of its own. If the hospital has served as a canary in a coal mine for the country’s Ebola response, the results have not inspired confidence.

Canaries were placed in coal mines because gas fumes killed them faster than it killed miners. That’s not a great role for a hospital.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ebola crisis calls for calm, factual and honest talk, while acknowledging context of panic

In the multiple layers of the current international Ebola crisis, how key public health officials communicate about the present and future is probably considered last.

And one can’t really argue that. The African disaster must be contained and patients helped; the spread of the infectious disease must be thwarted; health care workers must protect and be protected. And on and one goes the list, almost to infinity.

Yet somewhere down the line, and especially here where we think about such things, we must look at how we communicate — carefully, factually, effectively.

The specter of Ebola — weaponized through suicide spreaders or just taking its inevitable course around the globe — screams panic.

Consider the opening of this story in today’s New York Times:

Federal health officials have offered repeated assurances that most American hospitals can safely treat Ebola, but Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which had years of preparation for just such a crisis, found out how hard that is while it cared for three Ebola patients.

As doctors and nurses there worked to keep desperately ill patients alive in August, the county threatened to disconnect Emory from sewer lines if Ebola wastes went down the drain. The company that hauled medical trash to the incinerator refused to take anything used on an Ebola patient unless it was sterilized first. Couriers would not drive the patients’ blood samples a few blocks away for testing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And pizza places would not deliver to staff members in any part of the hospital.

“It doesn’t matter how much you plan,” Dr. Bruce Ribner, an infectious disease specialist who directed the patients’ care, said in an interview. “You’re going to be wrong half the time.”

Such a diverse and pervasive crisis creates scores of spokespeople, from heads of governments to hospital CEOs to the World Bank to aid groups.

Let’s single out one, at the heart of the U.S. response, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s all right there in his title.

In his news conference yesterday he presented a polished, factual and far from clinical look at this plague that’s still in its earliest stages. He will likely become the public health face of this situation in America.

Viewing his presentation yesterday as a coach, it’s clear the Frieden has all the uncoachable abilities you seek. He’s calm, even, well modulated and projects sincerity. He apologized for a day earlier making it sound like he criticized the hospital, infected health-care worker and procedures involving the “index patient” who died in a Dallas hospital. And you felt he meant it.

A worried public takes away cues and messages from leaders like Frieden. His qualities, training and presentation should go a long way to improving confidence in the government’s response to Ebola, at least in the United States.

We will likely hear from him more often and under much heightened pressure before this scourge recedes, and we’ll watch closely.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Secret Service seems to honor first part of its name over the second part

Protecting presidents and the White House should be about Service, not so much Secret.

But at least some of the people charged with that most important task seem to emphasize the latter.

If it weren’t for The Washington Post and other enterprising news outlets, the U.S. Secret Service would have let the American public believe a fence jumper a couple of weeks ago only reached a White House entryway — which is of course bad enough.

But it turns out that he did quite the tour of the first floor before an agent going off duty happened to encounter the man and tackle him. The paper also subsequently reported a Nov. 11, 2011 incident in which seven shots struck the White House and no one connected the shots until sometime later.

Then there was the April 2012 fiasco in Columbia where agents engaged hookers and then refused to pay them. The bosses obviously didn’t want to compound the toxicity by telling the truth.

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson faced an angry Congressional committee Tuesday and while her assertions were the right thing to say, she backed them up with too few facts.

“It’s clear that our security plan was not properly executed,” she said. “I take full responsibility. What happened is unacceptable, and it will never happen again.”

This is a good statement, but the home invasion happened Sept. 19. It’s too little, too late. Commanders needed to resign or retire; agents reassigned.

Saying she couldn’t give complete responses because presidential protection is highly sensitive or classified, Pierson said the incident remains under investigation, and she doesn’t “want to get ahead of the investigation.”

Maybe it ought to stop being classified and shared more with the public, who seem to have no trouble figuring out how to breach it.

CNN reported that Republicans and Democrats questioned how Omar Gonzalez penetrated “five rings of security” in jumping the White House fence, overpowering a Secret Service officer and running deep into the White House, where he was finally subdued.

“How on earth did this happen?” asked Chairman Darrell Issa. “Why was there no guard stationed at the front door of the White House, and yes, how much would it cost to lock the front door of the White House?”

But here’s the yellow snow: The Secret Service put out a release after Gonzalez was apprehended minimizing the incident. As the facts slowly came out — despite the Secret Service — this looked more and more like a cover up, like an effort to hide the truth.

Nothing fans a crisis’s embers hotter than evidence of a cover up. And when NBC reporter Kristen Welker  asked Pierson whether she did not know that release went out, or knew and let the cover up happen, she hid behind “the investigation” and kept walking away from cameras. Not good.

Investigation or no, heads need to roll. Europeans and other countries with prime minister forms of government are much more facile about resigning when the perception is you’ve done a poor job.

Pierson should have taken one for the Secret Service, the highest form of service.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In trying to end domestic abuse crisis, NFL’s Goodell made multiple errors

By now NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s Friday news conference on how the league planned to fix its domestic abuse crisis has been parsed and commented on everywhere.

So let’s just take a quick look at why it was almost universally scorned as inadequate.

1. Too much bad blood. By failing to stem the crisis immediately and perform a series of corrective actions within days of Ray Rice’s assault on his fiancé, the league built up bad blood. Call it mojo, PR, anger, MOmentum, whatever. It becomes harder and harder to end a crisis the longer it lived compounding mistakes.

2. Fast isn’t February. Speed is crucial and something the NFL supposedly values, at least on the field. The answers are right there, like a tipped pass, for everyone it seems except the commissioner and his advisers. Domestic abuse happens thousands of times a day. Further, it’s likely that half a dozen new players will face Rice-like accusations between now and the Super Bowl, when Goodell said he’d have a new player code of conduct. This further erodes his credibility and his sense of urgency to fix this problem — which in the end is exactly what everyone’s clamoring for.

3. Only apologize if you mean it. This is a corollary to No. 1. When you face perceptions of wrongdoing, hiding, covering up, even lying, your apology had better be personal as well as professional, and abject. Goodell came across as reluctant and half-hearted. If TMZ can find the Rice video with a phone call, and TMZ’s reporter asks you why you failed to do the same, you’d be best served to have a better answer than looking over the reporter’s head.

4. Enter the lion’s den armed. Goodell ducked the media for 10 days. He hid behind spokespeople. So he had to know the assembled media would be a hornet’s nest. CNN’s Rachel Nichols in particular went for the jugular with fair if intense questions. But the only surprise there was that Goodell seemed unprepared to deal with the questions, which any PR professional could have listed for him before he stood behind the podium. He was woefully unprepared. And if you look at the questions asked, especially by Nichols, they sing of people who were afraid to test Goodell with those questions prior to his news conference.

5. Lead, follow or get out of the way. That 1970s aphorism comes to mind because Goodell has done none of the three. And now, he should get out of the way. Not so a former FBI director whose law firm has NFL ties can investigate; but so an objective third party can restore credibility to the league.

Finally, as we saw in ESPN’s story over the weekend about when the Baltimore Ravens knew about the extent of Rice’s attack, this story isn’t over. That means that these mistakes and many others in the same vein will continue to fester until the NFL wakes up and comes clean. That may require a new commissioner.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crafting a statement with integrity during a crisis when you’re ‘the bad guy’

We noted here a couple of days ago that the National Football League Players Association planned to appeal Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s double suspension from his job. Even money he’s going to win — on the issue of double jeopardy.

Most people surely agree he deserves to be fired and only reinstated, if at all, after some serious counseling and significant time abuse free in his marriage to Janay Palmer.

The NFLPA is a union, headed by Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, right. It’s true that any five of its players make more money than an entire autoworkers’ local, but that’s an issue for another day. This is the union’s job — insure that an employer treats its members fairly and legally.

It therefore had the unenviable task of appealing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s — and the Ravens’ — firing of Rice and banning him from the NFL. In the national lexicon, there is no larger villain right now than Ray Rice, with Vikings running back Adrian Peterson close behind.

Here, thanks to flagging by my EMA colleague Fran Nichols, is what the NFLPA said:

NFLPA STATEMENT ON APPEAL OF RAY RICE SUSPENSION

Today, the NFL Players Association formally filed an appeal of the indefinite suspension of Ray Rice by the NFL. This action taken by our union is to protect the due process rights of all NFL players.

The NFLPA appeal is based on supporting facts that reveal a lack of a fair and impartial process, including the role of the office of the Commissioner of the NFL. We have asked that a neutral and jointly selected arbitrator hear this case as the Commissioner and his staff will be essential witnesses in the proceeding and thus cannot serve as impartial arbitrators. 

Additional information on this matter:

·       The terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement require a hearing date to be set within 10 days of this appeal notice.

·       Under governing labor law, an employee cannot be punished twice for the same action when all of the relevant facts were available to the employer at the time of the first punishment.

·       The hearing will require a neutral arbitrator to determine what information was available to the NFL and when it was available.

I won’t analyze this point by point, but it’s expert. The best part is when it cites the rights of all the players. That not only broadens everyone’s understanding, but takes the focus off Rice.

For anyone looking to issue a fair statement during a crisis that has organizational integrity and actually says something, this is as close to perfect as it comes. Concise, non-judgmental, no whining, no mud-slinging. This works.

Save it.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Goodell now personally doing everything wrong in managing Rice crisis

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had a rough week last week. And he didn’t start this one any better.

Listen to ESPN‘s Hannah Storm.

He apparently had reservations to crack a bottle of champagne on the bow of the latest NFL luxury ship, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA, the new home of the San Francisco 49ers.

He no-showed.

The litany of the NFL’s horrible mistakes, miscues and confusing moves in the Ray Rice mess is well-known. Later this week, the worst outrage since the actual punch may occur. The league might have to reinstate Rice — according to some interpretations of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement with the players union.

Broadly defined, league officials have consistently done the opposite of what they should have done, from the start. They neither obtained all the facts, nor released all the facts. They apparently covered up, or did not communicate internally, that they had the full elevator video five weeks before they said they saw it for the first time. They may have even lied about what Rice told Goodell when they met about Rice’s one-punch knockout of Janay Palmer. And, they rushed to judgment, weakly.

Now, when he should be out front, speaking to media, answering questions to the best of his ability — he’s a no-show, bunkering down and avoiding the public. Bad, bad, bad.

There are legalities here, but Goodell’s appointment of former FBI director Robert S. Mueller to investigate the whole Rice scandal is no reason to go silent. This isn’t a grand jury, a lawsuit or a criminal case — at least not yet. Hiding is never acceptable. It reeks of guilt.

This is especially true when Ray Rice is not the only issue he should address. Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson faces an indictment in Texas for using a switch to discipline his 4-year-old son. Peterson didn’t play Sunday and may not play for the Vikings again. ESPN‘s Cris Carter and others ripped the NFL on that too, but Goodell wasn’t around to respond.

Goodell’s a smart, capable attorney. He communicates far more vulnerability than he realistically faces by ducking. He prolongs the story. The Huffington Post’s lead headline this morning was: Mr. Football Goes Into Hiding. Are you kidding me?

Airplanes towed banners over some NFL stadiums Sunday, calling for Goodell’s job. In the absence of a sincere, personal, aggressive and informative response from Goodell, that wish may come true.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NFL domestic abuse crisis, mismanaged from the kickoff, gets worse as facts emerge

Two days ago, few thought the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal would cause the NFL additional pain and embarrassment. But it is doing just that.

Yesterday more facts came out. A New Jersey criminal investigator told the Associated Press that he’d sent the full video of Rice beating up his then fiancé in a casino elevator to the NFL’s offices five weeks ago.

Oops.

NFL worker bees suddenly scoured the office for the hot DVD, but spokespeople say no one saw it. A voicemail from the NFL to the investigator, however, confirms receipt.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who went on national TV to counter the perception he’s soon going to be looking for a job, asked former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller to investigate the whole mess. That’s a big-time escalation.

For a multitude of reasons, the NFL fumbled this one from the start. And the sign of a runaway crisis is when facts come out that make your leaders sound like liars. On Monday, the NFL said it had never seen the full video of Rice cold clocking Janay Palmer. Two days later, it appears that was incorrect.

The Watergate mantra emerges: “What did they know and when did they know it?”

This is the nightmare scenario for crisis managers. Getting all the facts out as fast as possible is a first step in handling a crisis properly. In this case, facts have dribbled out, many of them not under the NFL’s control; which leaves NFL leaders looking clueless, confused and discredited.

And, the crisis continues heading toward a growing disaster.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment