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The Worst Times Can Create the Best Leaders: Here’s How

There’s a crass saying in public relations: “Never waste a good crisis.” That’s because moments of challenge offer opportunities for leaders to step up and shine—and reap praise when they do their jobs well.

In reality, a crisis is never a good thing. And it takes smart people working together to resolve them to everyone’s benefit.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit AW client Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center especially hard. The combination of the virus itself and the necessary responses to it presented immense challenges—medical, financial and emotional—and forced them to create new ways of fulfilling their mission from behind their newly (and necessarily) locked doors.

How they did it—and the role a solid public relations strategy played—serve as a textbook example of how true thought leadership in a crisis can help a brand weather the toughest storm and come out stronger on the other side.

What it takes to be a thought leader in times of trouble.

  • Readiness before the crisis occurs. Chances are your brand is going to face a crisis at some point. Make sure your crisis team is identified well before that happens and that there are protocols established so you’re not building the plane while you fly it. At Gurwin, the communications team works directly with the CEO and medical director, so information can flow freely—and the brand can act quickly—should trouble strike.
  • Commitment from the top down. A crisis is all-hands-on-deck, and senior executives must step up to lead their team. The face and voice of your brand set the tone for how your response is perceived—and the impact on your reputation that follows. Gurwin CEO Stu Almer led his team with a commitment to accountability that not only served as a model for staff but made Almer an advocate for his industry.
  • Transparency that builds trust. Delivering timely and factual information, even when it might not be good news, tells your stakeholders they can trust and rely on you to honestly share what’s going on. Since Gurwin was forced to suspend visitation during the pandemic, daily communications with families and a strong media strategy were key to share information, remain transparent and push back on rumors and inaccurate data.
  • Empathy, above all. Admitting challenging times doesn’t make you weak; letting people know you are aware of—and to some extent, share—their suffering builds bridges. Beyond media sound bites and prepared communications, Gurwin directly reached out to families individually to apprise them of their loved ones’ conditions.
  • Real connections. Relying on just one communications channel—emails, for example—doesn’t fully humanize your message or connect with all your constituencies. Reaching people where and how they are comfortable, whether on social media or with photos and video, can help you relay a more robust picture of what’s at stake and who’s involved.
  • A willingness to embrace innovation. We all have access to amazing technology that can break down barriers and help us stay connected; the magic is in figuring out how to leverage that technology to your benefit. Need help? Ask someone outside the senior team for ideas. Gurwin created the “Gram grams” video messaging program, allowing families to send prerecorded messages to their loved ones and arrange videoconference calls to stay in touch.
  • A strong media relations strategy (and open door). Depending on the circumstances, reporters will get wind of your challenges and come calling to inquire about what’s going on, so be ready for them. Being open and honest will not only help you counter the critics today, it will also build trust with reporters for the next time something about you (or your industry) crosses their desk. Gurwin’s eagerness to share what was going on at the facility, including the toll the virus was taking, built their credibility with media and their audiences—something that’s sure to last when the pandemic is (thankfully) but a memory.

None of this comes by punching the Monday-to-Friday clock or doing things the way they’ve always been done. Vision, perseverance and a commitment to the process of doing the right thing is what creates great leaders who will be ready to guide the way into the future. Because there will always be another crisis, the key is how your brand manages it.

To learn more about effective crisis communications strategies, contact us.

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