“A time to text, and a time to refrain from texting.”
It’s good advice for communicators—and something a UK surgery center will likely heed from now on.
Askern Medical Practice in Doncaster, England, bungled big time after a text message it sent to patients to wish them a happy holiday instead told them they had aggressive lung cancer. It also directed recipients to fill out a form for claiming benefits under a terminal illness.
After an hour of panic among possibly hundreds of people, the surgery center followed up with another text message: “Please accept our sincere apologies for the previous text message sent. This has been sent in error. Our message to you should have read [w]e wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. In case of emergency please contact NHS 111.”
(I’ll bet more than a few recipients are ringing up that National Health Service emergency number.)
As far as crisis communication goes, Askern got the first part right. They realized their error and quickly used the same platform to apologize and correct it. But by adding the intended holiday greeting—which looks like a weak attempt to tap people’s goodwill and humor—Askern comes across as shockingly insincere (not to mention making itself the butt of countless memes). Nearly a week later, Askern has yet to respond to media queries or do any other follow-up with patients. That makes their faux pas a lot worse.
Organizations often treat crisis communication like a Band-Aid: slap it on quickly and ignore the wound till it heals on its own. That might work for a paper cut; it’s useless for a severed artery.
Regardless of the crisis, every organization should think through the immediate and long-term communication needs. Start with empathy, transparency and accountability—acknowledge the impact on those affected, sympathize, take responsibility for addressing the crisis. Be clear on what’s happened, who is affected directly and indirectly, what do they need to know, how can we tell them, how quickly can we tell them, how often will we update them.
The other issue raised in Askern’s case is the use of texting. Yes, it’s convenient and often useful. But communicators may want to take a hard look at whether it’s being used appropriately—and not just in crisis situations. Some messages, even process-related ones, are best delivered in a more thoughtful and personal way. A phone call, video chat or in-person meeting seems infinitely better for a cancer case than a text message.
Communicating effectively isn’t a checklist. In good times or bad, it means understanding what your audience needs, and being both empathetic and thorough in bringing that to them.