A patient dies. The community protests. What do you do?

The death of 25-year-old Brandon Harris at Emory Healthcare Sleep Disorders Center has led to a mounting offensive against the lab. According to an article in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Harris’ death has “pitted a family active in the metro Atlanta church community against one of the area’s major medical facilities.” At the time and in the aftermath of such unfortunate events, endless “what if” questions ensue. Your center can’t afford to handle a crisis in reaction mode. Planning, preparation, and practice are key to handling a critical moment.

The critical moment for Emory Healthcare began when Harris, who reports say was overweight and had Type 2 diabetes, collapsed at the sleep center. According to the Emory Sleep Center death statement posted by WSBTV.com, “At 4:38 am the patient complained that he could not catch his breath, and one technician said to call 911, and the call was placed. The patient said he felt like he was going to die. At 4:49 am, he was unresponsive and at 4:51 am, the technicians lowered the patient to the floor. The emergency responders can be heard on the recording within a minute. After attempting resuscitation, the emergency responders transported him to the Emergency Department at Emory University Hospital. … At the hospital, the ER staff continued efforts to revive the patient until he was pronounced dead at 5:55 am.”

Responding to the dying patient was only the beginning of Emory’s response efforts. According to a statement from Emory reported in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Harris died of sudden cardiac arrest and the hospital attended to him appropriately.” Harris’ family would argue otherwise. In the aftermath of his death, family members held a press conference and a protest and demanded that Emory shut down until an investigation yielded answers, reports say. Emory was put on the defensive, and this could very well happen to any sleep lab.

You need to be prepared with specific plans to communicate during and throughout a moment of crisis. “The purpose of having a crisis communication plan is to spend as much time gathering the facts and getting them out there, and wasting no time on the mechanics of who figures out what to do and when and how,” says Lance Morgan, chief communication strategist for Powell Tate, a public affairs and crisis communication firm in Washington, DC.

Emory has been communicating its position, but, for now, they are not commenting any further on the situation. Harris’ death is a tragedy. The unfolding of events put Emory up against a wall. Time will tell if their reputation is damaged. But if comments posted online are an early indication of how they will fare (most comments were supportive of Emory), the lab would come out ok.

Your reputation is the lifeblood of your business. A thoughtful approach to handling a crisis will not only help you maneuver correctly and prevent damage, it will help put all parties at ease through ongoing, planned communication. “It’s increasingly important in this day and age that any institution have a plan in place if they’re likely to face a crisis, or likely to think they may face a crisis, because news travels so fast you must communicate as much as you can as fast as you can to all the audiences that you need to talk to,” says Morgan. “If you don’t communicate, someone else will fill the space and that’s not likely to turn out well.”

—Franklin A. Holman,