How Mayo Clinic responded directly to a damaging news report

The nationally known medical center countered CNN’s reporting—first internally with staff listening sessions and then externally with strongly worded statements and a video interview.

No organization is immune from crises.

A CNN report on Aug. 13 titled “Escape from Mayo Clinic” alleged that Mayo Clinic had held a patient against her will and refused her request to transfer to another hospital, an assertion that officials of the health care facility have strongly disputed.

The crisis unfolded over 18 months, from the time Mayo Clinic learned about the pending report—while the patient was still in the hospital—to Aug. 13 of this year, when CNN broke the story.

Karl Oestreich, Mayo Clinic’s director of media relations, cites the strong internal and external responses that the organization undertook to counter what it called the reporter’s “pre-determined narrative” about the situation.

Ginger Plumbo, manager of issues and crisis communications, describes Mayo Clinic’s first step: addressing the report internally. It invited front-line care staff to listening sessions on the day the report went live, so those employees could meet with Mayo Clinic leaders for support. The listening session was well received, so it scheduled another for Aug. 17.

Addressing the matter at first internally, then externally, followed the Mayo crisis playbook.

‘Reach out to your staff’

“The most important thing to do immediately in a crisis is to reach out to your staff to make sure they are aware of what is happening and have the information they need to respond to questions,” says Amy Davis, Mayo Clinic’s head of communications.

The week the story ran, Mayo Clinic published three news releases on its site, promoting them through a web banner atop its home page and through social media channels. The statements detailed Mayo Clinic’s perspective on the story and addressed specific points in CNN’s report.

Mayo Clinic also shot, edited and posted an interview with Executive Dean of Practice Dr. C. Michel Harper. Oestreich says Mayo chose Harper because of his deep subject knowledge and his enthusiasm for addressing the report directly.

Mayo Clinic provided the video to help TV stations and visual-heavy web outlets include Mayo’s rebuttal in their reporting. Local news teams included excerpts from that video, Oestreich says.

‘They’ve done everything right’

Crisis expert Gini Dietrich, founder and author of Spin Sucks, lauded Mayo Clinic’s response:

In dealing with the aftermath of the CNN story, the Mayo Clinic has been forthright and transparent about why they made the decisions they did in the case of this particular patient—and why they thought she (and her family) was unable to make decisions on her own. None of that information was included in the CNN story, even though they spent four hours with the reporter to tell their side of the story.

From a crisis perspective, they’ve done everything right. The CNN story ran on August 13 and the Mayo Clinic immediately posted a statement on their blog. They didn’t wait. They didn’t let time pass. They responded immediately and appropriately.

Media relations and crisis communications expert Nick Lanyi discusses the apparent rationale behind Mayo’s response:

If CNN ignored important parts of the story that contradicted their pre-determined angle, that’s bad journalism, and Mayo has a right to say so. But Mayo’s decision to get into a public fight with CNN is risky, as it attracts more attention and could make Mayo look argumentative and legalistic — like they’re circling the wagons to protect themselves. Clearly they determined that those risks were outweighed by the need to tell their side of the story.

Oestreich says Mayo Clinic typically requests only small changes in news reports to correct the record, if it responds at all. In this case, Oestreich says, Mayo executives saw it as an atypically inaccurate report requiring an official response, in order to support staff and reassure patients.

“The most important takeaway from this crisis was to be true to ourselves,” Plumbo says. “We knew the premise of the CNN story was false, and [we] had a responsibility to set the record straight and stand up for our care team, who did their level best in dealing with a very challenging and complex situation.”

Walking the HIPAA tightrope

Mayo Clinic was acutely aware of the importance of a timely response, but it was limited by the legal and privacy considerations that health care organizations face. Nonetheless, the medical center’s crisis planning enabled it to respond swiftly.

Dietrich says:

In our 24/7 information age, it’s important to be prepared and ready in cases like this. They didn’t sit on the information—and they continued to update as the story unfolded. It’s a case study in crisis done well.

Mayo Clinic also invested in measuring public sentiment resulting from its response. A Mayo Clinic national survey found that 13 percent of respondents were aware of the story. Of those, 65 percent were more persuaded by Mayo’s perspective, and 15 percent were primarily swayed by CNN’s coverage. Twenty percent were not sure or did not have an opinion.

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