Improve Your Hospital Crisis Comm Plan with 3 Easy Tasks

Alert showing crises that needs attention

Think about your current crisis communication plan.

  • Do you have one?
  • Can you find it?
  • Is it out-of-date?
  • Who can use it?
  • Does it only address COVID?

As healthcare marketers and strategists, we cognitively understand the importance of a living, actionable crisis communication plan, but who has time to make one, let alone update one?

Surprise. You do!

So, instead of adding “Update crisis plan” to the long list of projects you need to tackle, prioritize these three tasks to reduce confusion and position your team for success:

  1. Revisit the basics of HICS
  2. Define roles and responsibilities for your team
  3. Make your internal contact list a separate document

Revisit the Basics of HICS

If it’s been a while since you learned about incident command or you can’t remember what PIO stands for, here’s a quick refresher.

When we talk about disaster preparedness and crisis communication for hospitals and health systems, we’re really talking about the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS). HICS is a flexible, scalable, and adaptable system that can be used by all hospitals regardless of size, location, patient acuity, patient volume, or hazard type. HICS expands or contracts relative to the situation and – fun fact - plays an important role in maintaining Joint Commission or HFAP accreditation.

HICS is based on the same principles as the Incident Command System (ICS) and establishes a standard format for response immediately recognizable to others from responding agencies like fire, police, National Guard, and state departments of health.

If you’re thinking, “That’s great, but what does it have to do with me?” Well, once incident command is activated for a given situation, all communication activities intended for internal and external audiences come from the Public Information Officer (PIO) position, A.K.A. marketing and communication staff. Without a general understanding of the system and how it works, your team could inadvertently damage the response process or even worse – the hospital’s reputation.

Define Roles and Responsibilities for Your Team

Regardless of how many staff members belong to your department, you can almost guarantee that the one most prepared to handle a specific situation will be on vacation the day it happens. That’s why establishing roles and responsibilities before a disaster strike is critical to a successful response.

Now, creating roles and responsibilities sounds like a lot of work, but the task becomes infinitely more manageable when you get out of the weeds and get vaguely specific. That’s vague enough so you don’t need a separate plan for every potential threat or new hire but specific enough that any person pulled into the communication response group can figure out what to do and how to do it.

Here’s a chart to help you envision “vaguely specific” in a health system setting.

Purpose: Create and Implement Messaging Strategy

Incident Command

  • Public Information Officer
  • Incident Command Lead
  • Incident Command Support

Lead creation and implementation of strategy and messaging, coordinate information received from all sources, and internal communication

Public Relations

  • Media Contact
  • PR Support

Coordinate media inquiries, interview requests, and generally act as a liaison between external organizations seeking information and the health system


  • Social Media Monitor/Report
  • Social Media Post
  • Website Updates
  • Digital Support

Monitor incident-related messages on social media platforms, reply as needed, and access and update the website as needed


  • Create and update all incident-related graphics
  • Signage as needed
  • Document the crisis with videos and photos

Lead creation and implementation of strategy and messaging, coordinate information received from all sources, and internal communication

  1. State the team’s purpose. The purpose of a HICS crisis communication team is to create and implement a messaging strategy
  2. Who will do the work? Employees will be assigned to one of four broad categories: incident command, public relations, digital or marketing/creative
  3. What roles are needed? The most common jobs are listed within the categories
  4. What will they do? Employees will address the tasks listed under their group

When creating a flow chart like this, resist the urge to name individual people. Instead, focus on the most likely job tasks and what kind of training or skills are needed to accomplish those tasks. Using this method reduces confusion, serves as a contingency plan when someone can’t play their usual role, and enables you to have a quick response when an incident occurs. When properly executed, this chart can get you through the initial phase of crisis response.

Make Your internal Contact List a Separate Document

This simple, straightforward tip is designed to save you a lot of time and effort. Most departments keep an employee contact list that contains cell phone numbers and email addresses. Usually, it’s in electronic format and stored where everyone has access to it.

Treat this document as the source document for your crisis response team and put processes in place to keep it current. Don’t rely on the printed version thumbtacked to the break room bulletin board.

Include the link to this source document in your crisis communication plan so activating team members is easy. If you play a critical role in incident response, keep a printed copy in your office, at home, and maybe even the car because you’ll need it at the most unexpected time.

You know the importance of clear messaging and instructions during a crisis. You also know procrastinating doesn’t make a task disappear. So, don’t wait for the next pandemic to emerge. Prioritize these three actions now and position your team for success.

Is it time to revisit your crisis communication strategy?

Ten Adams would love to help you get started. Reach out and connect with our experts. We love it when a plan comes together!

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