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Critical illness of public figures


Heather Barker

Critical illness of public figures

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No one likes to talk openly about illness, especially in the Caribbean.
But with the serious illnesses and deaths of political and business leaders in recent times, I’ve been thinking about the lessons that effective public relations can bring to bear in the public and private sectors, especially with three of our Prime Ministers passing away while in office.
The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez underwent emergency pelvic surgery in June 2011 in Cuba. Three weeks later in a live televised address he told the nation that doctors had removed cancerous cells from his body.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported: “Normally a media animal, Chavez had all but disappeared since being admitted to hospital in Havana earlier this month, virtually abandoning his Twitter account and appearing only in the occasional photograph or video.”
In February 2012 Chavez again underwent surgery before getting another operation in December last year. Speculation and rumour were rife after he was unable to attend his January 10 inauguration.
In mid-February an image of Chavez in hospital with his two daughters was circulated, the first release in two months. On March 1, vice-president Nicolas Maduro said that Chavez was “fighting for his life”. He passed away on March 5.
In the absence of information, or when less than usual communication is taking place, stakeholders, customers and the general public tend to speculate. Instability can often result among shareholders and within companies, governments and economies.
How do governments or corporate entities effectively manage communications when their high-profile leaders have life-threatening illnesses or die?
With estate planning, it is better to plan in advance of the eventuality. The same applies to communications around a CEO or head of state becoming seriously ill or dying unexpectedly.
Crisis management is that function of public relations which allows an entity’s communicators, in conjunction with other members of the management team, to identify issues which may escalate into crises, scenario plan accordingly, and implement that plan if/when it is needed. Planning is not done in a vacuum and there is some predictability of how crises unfold and are reported.
With the prolific use of social media, which allows anyone with access to a computer or smart phone to instantly broadcast “messages” to all and sundry, effective crisis management is critical now more than ever.
Because of the new media and communications climate, organisations need not only to respond quicker with finely tuned and well timed key messages in times of crisis but also to anticipate the types of crises which could arise and have in place systematic procedures to address them effectively.
The first key step is to craft a crisis management plan regarding serious illness or death. Identify a series of scenarios. For example, CEO suffers a massive heart attack. Then drill down through each scenario and draft a written plan that covers:
1. What will you say and to whom? Develop a list of key messages taking into account the varying needs of staff, shareholders, the general public, and other stakeholders. Communication around serious illness and death needs to be addressed with a high degree of sensitivity. What are the implications of saying too little or too much on a CEO’s deteriorating health?
2. When will it be said? For each message, at what juncture is it shared? Immediately after the occurrence, within three hours, after 24 hours?
3. Who will say it? Assign a spokesperson and prepare him or her. Determine whether this should be a political, corporate, communications, or medical official. Which spokesperson would be perceived as more credible?
The more serious the accident/illness, the more likely that the first spokesperson would be the senior executive/politician. Also assign a secondary spokesperson to act as a back-stop. Make sure that your employees, especially those on the frontline, are thoroughly briefed and know the parameters of what they can do and say. Not that they should speak publicly but they are “messengers” within their immediate spheres of influence.
4. How and where will it be said? Will the message(s) of the CEO’s or Prime Minister’s serious illness or death be delivered via an oral statement to the Press, a Press release, a media conference, among other things? Weigh the pros and cons of each, mindful of government protocol in the case of a head of state.
Crisis management plans should not be developed in a vacuum. Ensure representatives of all internal stakeholders are present – operations, human resources, and communications. Externally, a senior protocol officer as well as a medical official should also be consulted. Also ensure your management plan starts with measurable objectives, and take the time to confirm your audiences.
Different tactics and messages should be developed depending on the audience. For example, it is critical to speak with internal stakeholders prior to making public pronouncements.  They can bolster or derail the plan.
It may also be wise to seek the counsel of an independent public relations or corporate communications professional to guide you through the process since he or she may bring a unique and more objective perspective informed by their experiences of dealing with multiple clients and issues across diverse sectors.
It is best to develop a crisis management plan for the type of scenario highlighted here when the need for it is not immediately foreseen since well managed crisis communication is proactive and strategic. Therein lies its strength.
• Heather Barker is managing director of Clearly Content Communications Inc.

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