When Hospital PR Flatlines

Sometimes an interview earns the distinction of Media Disaster merely by virtue of its having taken place. This entry concerns just such an example.

After a man shot his mother, his mother’s doctor, and himself at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the media clamored for sound bites. And the most noteworthy interview came not from the police or a hospital spokesman, but from a nurse who evacuated the hospital and then promptly got on the phone with Fox News Channel.

Control the Message? Control the Messenger!

While hospital administrators and PR communicators were no doubt scrambling to separate fact from rumor, confirm victim identities, ensure next of kin notification, and clear crucial details with police, nurse Jacqueline Billy was taking a telephonic short cut directly to the media. She described a scene of “total chaos”, admitted that she was afraid for her safety at Johns Hopkins even before the shooting, and even went so far as to reveal that there are no metal detectors at Johns Hopkins or any other Baltimore hospital. (What kind of message does that send to the next shooter?)

Needless to say, none of these comments was remotely helpful to Billy’s employer, a nationally renowned hospital hoping to reassure the public in the midst of unprecedented crisis.

Don’t Blame the Media

From the Fox News standpoint, this was a great “get”; a live, candid conversation with somebody who was inside the hospital at the time of the shooting. This type of material is perfect grist for the 24-hour news mill. And a similar interview with a patient would not have given rise to this newsletter. The problem is, nurse Billy is affiliated with the hospital, presumably without being an official spokesperson. And that kind of interviewee often exacerbates a crisis rather than diffusing it.

Look Who’s Talking

Employment attorneys will tell you it is much easier to discourage unauthorized media communication than to punish it after the fact. Designated communicators must have media training long before a crisis, and non-qualified employees must understand the rules preventing them from making public statements. And although it’s a tricky new area, this also extends to social media, given that a single tweet or Facebook post can lead the news.

Nurse Billy may not have brought Johns Hopkins to its knees, but her spontaneous and apparently self-authorized foray into media communications was the last thing the hospital needed. And from a PR standpoint, that surely qualifies the episode as a Media Disaster.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.