By now everyone has seen the viral cell phone video of the physician being dragged from a United Flight in Chicago a few days ago and you may have read accounts other disgruntled United passengers like Geoff Fearns being removed from purchased seats. Yes, it is a PR nightmare, and we will get to that, but there are several other things that we can apply to the healthcare setting. As we look through what happened and how United responded there are some key takeaways that apply to not only Crisis Management but organizational culture.

Here are the focus areas that when addressed would at least mitigate a situation like United’s if not avoid it all together:

  1. Empowering & Resourcing Employees – An internal question United should be asking right now is ‘Could we have equipped and empowered our employees to drive a better outcome?’ This is not Monday morning quarterbacking the employee’s decisions but looking at what institutional barriers were in place that could be removed to allow for a better outcome for all involved. As we all deal with upset patients, organizations should make sure employees at the front line are empowered and resourced correctly to solve situations.
  2. Lead with Empathy – It is evident that the CEO of United Oscar Munoz struggled with whether to back the employees or the customer. Let’s set aside the axiom that the customer is always right for a second and realize that you can support both audiences. The way you support both audiences starts with an organizational culture that seeks to understand supporting empathy as a leader. In healthcare leadership empathizing with our patients and staff drives to better engagement and better decision making.
  3. Communicate with Compassion – Regardless of how well you empathize or the fact that you made the best decision possible if you communicate it poorly all of your good intentions are erased. How we communicate with patients and caregivers shape their experience more profoundly than the content and the burden is on the communicator, not the receiver. In human services, the default should always be to communicate with compassion. A best practice is to have someone outside the message development process review the communication and ask her: ‘Is that compassionate?’ and/or ‘How does that make you feel?’ If they
  4. Don’t fear an apology – The fact that it took United two days to apologize caused the public to question its sincerity and look reactionary to the drop in stock price. Very often large organizations avoid apologizing at the advice of legal counsel out of the fear of admitting culpability when in actuality it could make the organization appear callous and create a negative backlash that can be amplified in today’s social media environment. It is ok to tell a patient you are sorry, and if you are worried about risk, then quickly follow-up with that we will be investigating what happened through our continuous process improvement program (and execute on that).
  5. The power of a good Crisis Communications Plan – Every hospital and large healthcare provider should have a structured crisis communication plan and no, it is not the same thing as the Communication Plan required by the new CMS Emergency Preparedness Rule, although it could be a component of the overall organization’s Communication Plan and Emergency Operations Plan. A Crisis Communication Plan, which should be managed by the Public Information Officer (PIO) during a disaster, manages how the organization communicates with key audiences and manages its reputation. This should be the responsibility of the marketing or community relations departments to develop and maintain and should be written with the organization’s mission and values in mind. For example, if the organization values transparency and a key part of the Crisis Communication Plan is to make no comment, then your employees and community may feel disenfranchised by the departure from organizational values.
  6. Follow your Crisis Communication Plan – Very often organizations forget to follow their plan or think it is not relevant to the situation. A good Crisis Communication Plan involves a multi-disciplinarian, all hazard approach. While it may not perfectly fit, it better than shooting from the hip. Additionally, make sure your team is not dominated by one individual; however, there should be only one final decision maker and during a disaster that should be the Incident Commander. Finally, your Crisis Communication Plan should be nimble and responsive, and you should test it just like you test any other of the organizational disaster plan.

Some of you may think that an incident like the United incident can’t happen in your organization and I would challenge you to think again. With the prevalence of camera phones and the sharing nature of today’s society, the risk is greater now than ever. An everyday event such as restraining a psychiatric patient could take on a whole new perspective outside the four walls of a hospital.


Crisis Focus, LLC has focused expertise in healthcare emergency management, including CMS compliance. Please visit Crisis Focus’ CMS Emergency Preparedness resource page or contact us for more information.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Jody Moore’s LinkedIn Account and is cross-posted here as a resource.