When The Crisis Is A Slow Burn, PR Has to Light A Fire With the Media

Appearing before the House Energy & Commerce Committee last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius got grilled about the Affordable Care Act and the troubled HealthCare.gov rollout. Sebelius told committee members to hold her “responsible for the debacle,” referring to the (initially) dysfunctional Affordable Care Act federal exchange website. Facilitated by the white-hot glare of the media—and the public’s appetite for some accountability for the screw up—Sebelius’ testimony looked to be a precursor to her getting the boot by the Obama administration.

But in the next few days, the furor seemed to die down a bit. And Sebelius, who, at press time, was back on Capitol Hill explaining how the government is trying to ameliorate the situation, has survived the slings and arrows aimed at the administration (for now).

Still, the rollout of what’s been dubbed “Obamacare” raises a crucial question for PR managers and directors: What do you do when your CEO is under siege, the media smell blood and the story you’re trying to control takes on a life of its own?

For starters, you’re probably going to have double down on media relations and repair what may be some frayed relationships with reporters covering the story.

It’s also incumbent upon PR managers and directors to provide those reporters access to the boss, according to Tanya Meck, executive VP and managing director in the New York office of Global Strategy Group. “Reporters hate not having access,” she said. “You have to let them know when you’ll have updates, when the boss is available and set a schedule.”

The smiling faces on screen belie the poorly executed (and poorly communicated) rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act.
The smiling faces on screen belie the poorly executed (and poorly communicated) rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act.


There are varying degrees of crises, of course. A crisis that’s being played out in the court of public opinion requires a different response from one that’s not.

There are crises that are resolved relatively soon and there are crises—such as the rollout of HealthCare.gov—that become a slow burn.

The Obama administration has stated the problems associcated with the healthcare websites will be remedied by mid-November. But that message may paint the administraion into a corner.

“The newly announced deadline is a communications problem in more ways than one,” said Steven Fink, president and CEO of Lexicon Communications Corp., a top crisis management agency and author of “Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message” (McGraw-Hill Education, 2013).

He added, “There may not be a sufficient amount of time to get the site fixed and beta-tested by the announced deadline, and a second snafu on the order of the first could prove to be a death knell for the [health care] Act.”

Asked what PR pros can do when they’re dealing with an unusual crisis and the boss is under siege, Julie Batliner, managing director of Carmichael Lynch Spong, said that communicators need to take the following steps:

Put your monitoring on overdrive. Continue listening on a minute-by-minute basis and adjust your messaging to address new issues that arise.

Begin to develop “stand-by statements” that address issues that may come up next. Hold them in case they are needed so you can quickly address emerging issues. Have a dark section of the website that is ready to go live when needed.

Conduct a sunset review and keep moving forward. Once the crisis has simmered down, there’s still a lot of work to do to repair the situation and build trust again. Has this issue resulted in informing a new and better way to do things? What strategies worked and what didn’t? Update your crisis preparedness plan to be stronger in case the unexpected happens again.


As PR pros follow the ebb and flow of a crisis they also have to find time to refresh their succession plan.

“In a crisis you always have to plan for a change in leadership,” Peck said. “The top response to a crisis is to fire someone. Right or wrong, senior PR execs have to prepare for that possibility. It’s a delicate dance.” PRN


Julie Batliner, julie.batliner@clynch.com; Steven Fink, Sfink@lexiconcorp.com; Tanya Meck, tmeck@globalstrategygroup.com.


Steve Cody
Steve Cody

As Crises Boil, Try and Shift the Narrative

Crisis experts fear two things most: a client in denial and a never-ending series of news cycles. It seems to me that the gurus counseling the President on the ObamaCare website fiasco are faced with both issues as well as a host of others.

At first, President Obama refused to admit there was a problem. Then, he said there was one, but it would be quickly addressed. Next, we were told it would take months. Then, we discovered that CGI, the developer that built the mother of all websites, was given even additional website work. Finally, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was sent on an ill-conceived apology tour that left her open to even more attacks. Nothing’s worked. In fact, the website threatens to become Obama’s Waterloo. So, he should move quickly to change the narrative. Here’s what I’d recommend:

1. Keep the President focused on foreign policy and jobs creation. Those are subjects he can address without reminding people of the website woes. Ideally, I’d send him packing on his own apology tour of every country the NSA has admitted spying on. That would keep him out of sight and out of mind (at least when it comes to health care and a non-working website).

2. Fire Sebelius. It’s time for accountability and someone has to take the bullet. I suggest the double-talking HHS director be fired. The President should find someone who has the trust of Congress and the public (i.e. a retired surgeon general, former health care system guru). Ideally, Obama should find someone with a completely different persona than Sebelius. The change must be complete and immediate.

3. Right the wrongs. According to reports, more than $500 million has been spent to date with CGI. That’s criminal. CGI should be forced to return the fees which, in turn, should be given to those Americans who now find themselves without health care coverage thanks to the crazy rules and regulations on the website.

Number three may not be practical, but it admits fault, fixes a problem and begins rebuilding some semblance of trust with the public and other stakeholders.

Steve Cody is managing partner and co-founder of Peppercomm.

This story originally appeared in the November 11, 2013 issue of PR News.