‘We Have to Get Ahead of This’: Amid Bad Press, Senior Living Providers Must Be Transparent

In the age of Covid-19, adopting a policy of full disclosure can make senior living providers more vulnerable to unwanted attention from the local media, residents or their families. But while a proactive, transparent approach to communications may lead to short-term headaches during an already tough time, doing so now is important in building long-term trust.

“I think these communities are learning more and more every day,” Steve Wujek, vice president of communication with national senior living marketing agency GlynnDevins, told Senior Housing News. “How they managed communications six or eight weeks ago is dramatically different than how a lot of communities are managing it today.”

As word of confirmed cases of Covid-19 began surfacing at the outset of the pandemic, newspapers across the country were full of headlines about high-profile cases. At the time, no case was more infamous than the outbreak at a Life Care Centers facility in Kirkland, Washington, that ultimately sickened at least 129 people, according to a March 27 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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At the outset of the pandemic, some senior living providers were wary that any disclosure of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases could generate similar headlines in their communities, or at least spook prospective residents, investors or owners. And, such fears have merit. Press coverage of Covid-19 has routinely included negative and scary headlines and stories about outbreaks at senior housing and care communities, with reporters tending to lump senior living and nursing homes together.

But in the weeks since the news in Kirkland took the country by storm, senior living providers have learned much more about communications in the midst of a global pandemic, and are starting to educate the press and more assertively tell their side of the story, according to GlynnDevins’ Wujek. Based in Kansas City, Missouri, GlynnDevins works with around 300 senior living communities at any given time.

Providers such as Bickford Senior Living are moving toward a model of transparency and proactive relationship-building with media outlets. Doing so might still seem risky and challenging given all the other challenges facing senior living today, but the industry could sustain lasting long-term damage if providers overlook this aspect of their pandemic response.

Indeed, senior living is fighting a three-front war, battling the virus, trying to keep businesses financially stable, and “fighting a huge PR issue,” Aegis Living CEO Dwayne Clark said Tuesday during an appearance on SHN TALKS.

“Every day, you pick up The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and it talks about nursing homes are a mess, long-term care is [a mess] … and so on,” Clark said. “So, if you just think you’re fighting the virus, you’re being naive, we really have three wars that we’re fighting. And we better create a battle plan on all three of those fronts if we’re going to be successful.”

Dealing with a puzzled press

One of the biggest complaints reported by senior living providers amid the Covid-19 pandemic is that some local media outlets don’t quite grasp the full picture. Reporters and editors, rightfully wanting to warn their readers where the most infections lie, are prone to painting pictures of nursing homes and senior living communities overflowing with Covid-19.

This is especially common in states which publicly disclose which senior housing communities have had infections, typically as part of a daily or weekly briefing with members of the press. While those public disclosures can make senior living providers nervous, Affinity Living Group believes such announcements can also help rally the troops — and the public — in a time of need.

“While public announcements about how Covid-19 affects the senior living business may at first seem to shine a negative light on our work, we ask that you see these announcements instead as a call for your support,” a representative for the company wrote in an open letter Wednesday. “Now is not a time for negativity, rather, it is time for us as an industry, and as a nation to rally together in solidarity.”

Still, in writing stories that focus on infection totals, reporters often miss crucial nuances regarding the communities they’re writing about, even if all their facts and figures are correct. Some general assignment reporters don’t seem to understand the difference between the skilled nursing and senior living industries, leading them to conflate the two despite major differences.

This has been a recent source of frustration for Robyn Frankel, whose St. Louis-based marketing firm, Frankel Public Relations, oversees communications for a handful of senior living clients.

“Reporters have no concept that senior living communities and nursing homes are two different care models,” Frankel told SHN. “While any deaths are tragic, many more seniors are safe and protected due to extreme precautions being enforced by their senior living communities.”

For senior living providers, seeing inaccurate or misleading press coverage of the industry might cause them to ignore inquiries from reporters, especially during an already busy and chaotic time. But doing so would miss an opportunity to educate reporters, and potentially change the larger conversation in the process, according to Katie Adkisson, a partner at Nashville, Tennessee-based Reed Public Relations.

“I think that most journalists … want to hear both sides of the story,” Adkisson told SHN. “You can tell your side of the story and make sure that you’re getting all the information out to them.”

Adkisson recommends having a protocol and clear chain of command in place for when media inquiries arise. Providers or their representatives should not be defensive in fielding them, but instead respond with courtesy and patience. It’s also important to ask for a journalist’s deadline to make sure you can answer all of their questions on time, Adkisson said.

A recent example of this practice played out with Bickford Senior Living. The Olathe, Kansas-based company has adopted a policy of full transparency amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and has committed to displaying the number of active Covid-19 cases for each of its communities on that location’s website.

When a local news publication ran a story on April 20 highlighting Covid-19 infections and deaths at a Bickford community in Aurora, Illinois, the company didn’t shy away from talking to the press. Instead, Bickford Executive Vice President Alan Fairbanks used the opportunity to provide clarity on the state’s reported numbers and share more about what Bickford is doing to keep residents safe.

“Any time we see that there’s a negative story … we will proactively reach out and request to have a conversation,” Fairbanks told SHN. “As an industry, we have to get ahead of this so we can tell the accurate story.”

Taking a proactive approach to transparency can also help providers make better arguments when they do get to tell their stories. And, it prevents the public from viewing them as having something to hide.

“[Infection data] is already out there, so why not be transparent … so you have something to stand behind when a negative article comes out?” Fairbanks said. “If I was not transparent from the get-go, then I would have a hard time counteracting negative publicity.”

Of course, sometimes journalists just make mistakes. And in that case, it’s imperative to correct the record quickly, Adkisson said. But if a story is overly negative or sensational while technically correct, there is only so much one can do at the end of the day.

“At some point, you have to let that go and and move on,” Adkisson said.

Communicate clearly and often

Covid-19 is a scary time for senior living operators, owners and lenders — but even more so for vulnerable residents and their families. Even as providers develop better strategies for interfacing with the press, their communication and PR strategies must also account for consumers and other stakeholders.

Residents, their loved ones or senior living associates might have questions about what providers are doing to keep them safe, or whether there have been any new infections in their communities. Many providers in recent weeks have started sending out daily or weekly emails to keep everyone in their communities informed about Covid-19. Adding a personal touch is a good practice, especially when dealing with residents or their families.

“If it’s something that’s specifically impacting their family member, it should be a phone call,” Adkisson explained. “But if it’s something about the community that you want all families to be aware of, I think email is best.”

Choosing the right medium for outbound communications can also save a provider work in the future. For example, Canterbury Court, a life plan community in the Atlanta area that works with GlynnDevins, found that using an automated “robocall” phone messaging service to update families on its Covid-19 situation led to many more inbound calls than it anticipated.

“Within seconds of that message going out … every family member started calling us back wondering why they had a missed call,” Debi McNeil, president and CEO of Canterbury Court, told SHN. “Now, we are communicating via email, and sending paper copies to our residents here through their mailboxes.”

As for what to include in this messaging, a good rule of thumb is not to sugarcoat it, according to Mandy Hampton, COO of The Ridge Senior Living, a company with two senior living communities in Salt Lake City and one under construction in Denver. Like Canterbury Court, The Ridge also works with GlynnDevins. Its management company is Cappella Living Solutions, the for-profit management arm of Englewood, Colorado-based senior living nonprofit Christian Living Communities.

“Tell everybody the good, bad and the ugly,” Hampton told SHN. “We’ve had a lot of feedback from family members and residents and staff saying, ‘I know that message was not easy for you to tell us, but thank you for being honest with us.’”

Senior living companies also shouldn’t forget to inform the general public about what they’re doing amid the pandemic, too. Many providers have taken the approach of building special landing pages or sections on their website dedicated to Covid-19. Providers can add social media into the mix if they have a robust internal process for doing so.

“Facebook is a great means if you have a dedicated approach to managing it,” Wujek said. “At the very least, put a statement on your Facebook page that says, ‘For more information during this situation go to our website,’ and include your email and phone number.”

Transparency is also important when dealing with ownership groups or investors. And while doing so can lead to more scrutiny, not doing so can put providers on the defensive from the start.

Luis Serrano, CEO of Sunshine Retirement Living, said he sends detailed updates to the company’s residents and families once a week, and to stakeholders and lenders twice a week. Based in Bend, Oregon, Sunshine has 32 communities across 16 states, and specializes in middle-market senior living.

A typical message to Sunshine’s lenders contains updates on staffing, potential new cases of Covid-19 and other operational notes of interest. For families, Serrano explains what’s going on inside the community, from good news to bad.

“In any crisis, the unknown is what causes the panic, and that panic is what causes the damage,” Serrano told SHN. “If you are very upfront in the beginning with all your communications … that level of panic gets significantly reduced.”

Sunshine began communicating with families about Covid-19 at the beginning of March, and Serrano believes that taking a proactive approach has helped the company maintain the trust of everyone involved in its operations.

“[We have] a very elementary, very simple way of keeping people informed, but it’s very effective,” Serrano said. “Everybody has really appreciated it, from the lenders, to the residents and to their families.”

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