Tragedy at the State Fair: A health system’s PR response

On a blustery and stormy August evening, rigging at the Indiana State Fair collapsed during a concert, sending 20 individuals to IU Health Methodist Hospital, as well as others to Wishard and St. Vincent.

Details were sketchy at first, so little did I or anyone else on the public relations team at Indiana University Health know what we were getting into. But upon rounding with senior leaders at Methodist, the team soon realized it was about to see how well prepared it was to deal with crisis communications.

Here are some of the takeaways:

Issue No. 1: Reporters crossing onto hospital property or into the Emergency Department to interview anybody, regardless of whether they were at the State Fair that night.

PR response: We contacted security, which fixed two cameras on a parking lot across from the hospital where news vans were parking. Security also promptly escorted wayward media off hospital premises.

PR, meanwhile, rounded with the families of those critically injured to inform them of where media was positioned and to offer assistance in crafting statements to news outlets.

Issue No. 2: Inundation of condition and interview requests from national and local TV, print and radio outlets.

PR response: We first agreed which information would be released – patient totals and breakdown by walk-ins versus admitted – and when to issue further updates to media. We next divvied up media calls and live interviews between the two of us and, starting the next afternoon, funneled updates through the Indiana State Police, although specific patient condition and interview requests still came through IU Health.

Issue No. 3: What about social media?

PR response: We tweeted the following morning thanking all emergency responders for their help, and subsequent tweets informed followers of free public grief counseling sessions. Unfortunately, we had also scheduled a tweet well in advance to run that day promoting our presence at the State Fair. The tweet was brought down within a few minutes.

We also wished we would have told patients’ families to not post updates about their loved ones on Facebook – reporters were trolling the social networking site for updates and relatives they could contact for comments. We learned we also should have tweeted on the @RileyHospital handle – in addition to our @IU_Health handle – because we had patients at our children’s hospital, too.

It was a busy and surreal experience, but we weathered the storm and continue participating in mock disaster drills and tweaking our social media plan, as well as debriefing with hospital leaders on what we can do to ensure even smoother PR during any future crisis.

Guest post by: Kristofer Karol, Public Relations Coordinator at Indiana University Health. You can find him on Twitter @kristoferkarol.

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