Accreditation sanctions, H1N1 flu pandemic, gastro and salmonella outbreaks, understaffing: the news seethed with a lopsided view of the aged care sector this year. Things reached fever pitch with the Four Corners End of the Line feature in June. The reporting balanced, but the tone negative and the damage deep.

Provision of care – to children, people with disabilities and those able bodied as well as the aged – is inherently emotive. Whether the prized capital is political or financial, emotion will always be prey to manipulation. So how does an aged care provider effectively protect itself against the unforeseen, the threat to its goodwill? Because, as certain as an accreditation audit, the media will come.

1) Start now.
The Public Relations Institute of Australia reports that 83% of organisations will face a crisis at some stage, wiping out 30% of their bottom line. How you react and how quickly you communicate with stakeholders is crucial. Having an issues management plan is the best insurance. Deciding who you should speak to, what you should say and listing priority actions will ensure you respond optimally under pressure.

2) Manage the media. 
Your objective is zero coverage. Given the media’s penchant for negative aged care stories that’s unlikely. A misquoted comment can easily turn a minor issue into front page reportage. Media training an appointed spokesperson is an essential investment. Having prepared press statements and a protocol, understood by all staff, particularly those at the frontline (receptionists) will minimise opportunities for media coverage.

3) Contact stakeholders.
As important as the media is, it is the perceptions of stakeholders that will decide the future of your organisation. Residents and family members must hear firsthand how you are meeting the challenge before you. ACAT teams and other referrers of new residents need to have confidence. Every written and spoken word is critical in halting rumours and galvanising support.

4) Issues management as a KPI.
Staff should be clear about their roles in a crisis situation from day one of their job. When employees are well-prepared, valuable time is saved assigning tasks. Nurse managers are critical staff members. Activities coordinators will have a network of supporters. Key personnel must be clear on the roles of department, agency, nurse advisor, and consumer advocate representatives.

You, not external agencies, must remain in control.

Ellis Jones managed issues and crises for providers during 2009, including communication in response to government sanctions at two organisations.