Crisis Communications at Covenant Health

Salima Bandali and Rayne Kuntz, senior members of Covenant’s communications team, share the story of a privacy breach at the Misericordia Community Hospital.“Almost two years ago, an unencrypted back-up hard drive went missing from the Misericordia Community Hospital. What was on there was 3600 patient photographs that impacted 233 patients,” said Bandali.

Their crisis communications strategy process prepared them to share the news with their patients, staff and the community at large.

“This was our first significant privacy breach we faced as an organization, so it was brand new,” said Bandali.

However, Covenant was obviously well-armed with a strong team of intelligent and heartfelt individuals who really understood the heart of good communication. The communications team was able to focus the strategy in two main threads: minimize the impact on the 233 affected patients, and then properly inform the public about what happened.

Covenant’s values (like compassion and integrity) were in the communications process. Covenant’s priority was their patients’ needs, despite suggestions from advising bodies like Alberta Health Services that they inform the media first.

“There was that constant gut-check,” said Bandali. “Are we doing the right thing? Does this feel right in our gut? Is our heart leading, and what is our intention?”

The Covenant communications team decided that in order to remain true to the organization’s heart, they would inform patients of the breach first, despite possible repercussions with the media.

“Everyone sitting around that decision-making table believed in our values one hundred per cent, and that made such a difference,” said Bandali. “That’s what made the call-out [to affected patients] successful.”

Out of the hundreds of calls made, there were only twelve negative conversations, while the majority of the patients were thankful and even supportive to Covenant’s plight.

Kuntz, who is Covenant’s Senior Advisor, Media Relations, tells how they handled the media once their patients were cared for—they thought like reporters.

“I immediately, when I was told about this, developed questions,” said Kuntz. “What would I ask if I got that phone call from that person who had their privacy breached?”

Kuntz, who has previous media experience, made up a list that she brought to the first strategic meeting.

Those questions gave the communications team a great starting point for the communications materials they created, and the theme of ‘thinking like a reporter’ focused their materials and strategy in a way that helped inform the media and the public in direct, plain language.

Covenant Health’s response to their crisis was an excellent example of ideal crisis communications. Their strategies focused on two important themes: protect the victims; then present concise, honest communication to the public and stakeholders alike.

The actions of Bandali, Kuntz and the Covenant Health communications team minimized fallout from the crisis and turned the event into a positive demonstration of the organization’s values and competence. This clearly illustrates how an organization can remain true to the spirit and heart of communication, even in a crisis situation.

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