Two ways to deal with a medical-PR crisis

Medical staff attending to patients

Over the last few years, specifically in India, hospitals have been facing an ‘emergency’ of a very different kind. A medical-media crisis, by definition, is unexpected and unpleasant. No hospital seeks it out and no spokesperson desires to face it. If not handled dexterously, dealing with the volatility of emotional families and scared patients often leads to the medical facility being viewed with tremendous distrust and their dealings scrutinised.

Crises encompass a variety of flavours like lawsuits, white collar crime, massive layoffs and personal tragedies. Here are two cases from the past. Each company faced their own crisis, but only one cam out unscathed.

Faulty medicines but an PR honest approach.

In 1982 Johnson & Johnson faced one of their biggest pharmaceutical crises of all times. A batch of Tylenol, the No. 1 selling painkiller in the country, had been tampered with and laced with cyanide. As news spread and the number of poisoned casualties began to rise, it was clear that the company was at the brink of ruin. So just how did Johnson & Johnson managed to bounce back? Well, by doing the right thing.

Once the connection was made between the Tylenol capsules and the reported deaths, public announcements were made warning people about the consumption of the product. An immediate country-wide product recall followed – 31 million bottles and a loss of more than $100 million dollars. They even halted all advertisement for the product. The most crucial move came next, although Johnson & Johnson knew they were not responsible for the tampering of the product, they assumed partial responsibility by ensuring public safety first. This continued their credibility in the public’s eye.

When they finally re-launched the product many years later, the company inculcated their learnings from 1982. The product advertised a new FDA approved, tamper proof seal. Johnson & Johnson’s responsibility to the public first, proved to be its most efficient public relations tool. It was the key to the brand’s survival.

Staff misbehaviour and what was thought to be a clever cover-up.

Back in 2006, twelve doctors from Apollo hospital were charged with ‘tampering with evidence’ in the Rahul Mahajan drug abuse case. Despite numerous press conferences and PR initiatives, the accusation left the hospital’s credibility in tatters, with Apollo supposedly becoming a safe heaven for criminals and the institution’s ethics and professionalism being questioned.  So, what did Apollo do?

The hospital decided to get a little sneaky. If they could leverage the situation and get the public to focus their attention on the latest machinery and procedures adopted by the hospital to save human lives; people might soon forget the Rahul Mahajan incident.

The hospital’s PR office immediately organised one of the most unabashed press conferences with some of the country’s top doctors, as speakers. The theme was technological advancement and the significant contribution Apollo was making to the medical field. Smartly dressed doctors in suits, against a backdrop of Apollo branding – a visual dazzling enough to distract? The public was not to be fooled. The red-herring press conference sparked outrage and it only made matters worse that Apollo wasn’t taking the charges seriously. Media agencies and authorities came down even harder on the hospital and it was many months before the crisis began to dissipate.

In retrospect, it would have been far better had they just addressed the situation at hand. Without admitting to anything marring, Apollo’s PR officers could have instead, publicised the efforts being made to aid authorities looking into the matter. By assuring the public that the hospital was aware of the situation and was doing everything it could resolve the issue, institutional goodwill might have been salvaged.

The examples speak for themselves. As any good PR firm will tell you – it’s always better to be in the right; and not right in the centre.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *