Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

A Hospital's Worst Nightmare

Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

A Hospital's Worst Nightmare

Article excerpt

You're the public relations director at "Any" Memorial Hospital. The phone buzzes. It's the frantic voice of the hospital administrator, telling you that a baby is missing from the nursery -- taken from its mother's arms by a person posing as a staff nurse. What do you do?

If this sounds like an implausible case study, it's not. While no epidemic, this nightmare is occurring with increasing frequency, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), Arlington, VA. The group has documented more than 100 such cases since 1983 and reports 13 kidnappings so far in 1991.

Terri Read, director of public relations at a medical center in New Mexico, experienced this crisis firsthand. This past May, a child disappeared from the hospital's nursery, triggering an explosion of law enforcement, public and media attention that she was called on to manage. (The baby was found 12 days later unharmed.)

"Never say never -- it can happen," Read said of the ordeal. "The key to surviving the crisis is having a good communications plan in place when it does."

The plan's motto?: "Tell it all, fast and accurately, even though it's a terrible story," said Read. Priority one is to get the baby back to its family. If the hospital is seen as doing everything it can to facilitate this process, it's good public relations -- the kind that eventually helps the community regain its shaken trust in the hospital.

Unfortunately, this is not always the approach that hospitals adopt, according to John Rabun, vice president and chief operating officer of the NCMEC. "Sometimes you find a bunker mentality, with hospitals not even reporting the problem for several days," he said. "That retards the process of getting the baby back, which creates a far worse problem in the long run."

Rabun says the best approach is to have a public relations professional take control of the situation. He notes that it is the public's knowledge of the facts that usually leads to the child's return. The hospital should make sure that information comes from one source, and flows in an orderly, accurate fashion to the media.

"The hospital will be damaged if there is a lost baby -- that's a given," Rabun sais. "But showing the community that it cares more about the child than its reputation creates a tremendous community support. …

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