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Crisis communications experts: 'You have to be credible' in reporting effects of coronavirus

Milford Daily News, Mass. — Jeannette Hinkle and Trevor Ballantyne Milford Daily News, Mass.

May 23-- May 23--Crisis communications professionals told the Daily News that nursing homes would be wise to share the number of fatalities, even if that means communicating rising death tolls.

"You have to be credible in crisis communications, because if your community loses trust in you, you are dead in the water," said Capt. Thomas Lennon, a retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain and current chair of the emergency management department at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

Administrators at North Hill and Briarwood Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Needham had already publicly announced 27 of the 33 reported deaths in the town before the town officially announced the first known COVID-19 related deaths.

Both skilled-nursing facilities hired Ball Consulting Group LLC -- a crisis communications firm based in Newton -- to help with external messaging during the pandemic.

During an April 15 webinar on crisis management hosted by the Needham Chamber of Commerce, Ball Consulting Group founder and President David Ball said one rule of thumb for communicating during a crisis is being "as direct and as straightforward as you can."

"There is no getting around the facts here," Ball told webinar attendees. "We are dealing with this every day at our firm, talking about numbers of positive cases, talking about deaths, and it's a very challenging thing."

Ball, who has answered media inquiries about the number of coronavirus cases and deaths at the facilities for which he works, warned that ignoring inquiries from family members or reporters during times of crisis could lead to a loss of credibility.

"Credibility is really the only thing that you have, it is the greatest capital you have got, so don't even think about misleading or half-truths," Ball said.

"If you can't answer something you can say you can't answer it and you can get back to someone," he added. "Own the numbers, own the narrative, and control the way the information is released rather than be at the whim of another organization."

The principle of transparency applies when it comes to responding to media inquiries. Don't be evasive, avoid no-comment situations, and don't put your head in the sand when a reporter sends a question, Ball advised webinar attendees.

"I have heard all of these things as I have been doing this over the last 20-plus years, 'this will blow over, it's a one-day story, it's nothing but bird cage liner,'" Ball said. "All of those things may be true, and stories sometimes are one-day stories -- but serious stories will have a much longer cycle in the news media."

"If it is a serious story where you are not being forthcoming, and it demands the public's attention, then a good journalist is going to keep digging until they get the information they want."


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