Murder in the ICU: How To Manage a Crisis from a Human and PR Perspective

September 7, 2018

// By Peter Hochstein //

Peter HochsteinThis may not be what hospital communicators signed on to deal with, but it can — and did — happen. How would you handle the ensuing human and PR crisis?

On September 12, 2017, a Rhode Island man drove up to Lebanon, New Hampshire, and entered the intensive care unit at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where his mother was recovering from an aneurysm.

According to news reports and indictments filed against him, the man asked for some time alone with his mother. Once they were alone, he allegedly pulled out a handgun and shot her four times, killing her.

An ICU nurse who saw the gun moments before the shooting began, took shelter and called 911. Not surprisingly, a commotion followed. Its elements ranged from the expectable initial panic that seized some members of the hospital staff and patients who were fearful they might be shot next; to misinformation circulating on social media; to an invasion of more than 40 news media members in rural Lebanon, some of whom descended on the hospital by helicopter, others driving vehicles mounted with satellite antennas to broadcast on-the-scene reports of a headline-grabbing story.

Victoria McCandless, director of strategic communications at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

Victoria McCandless, director of strategic communications at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

For the 396-bed medical center, this was not only a human crisis but also the mother of all public relations crises. It demonstrated just how important it is to have a crisis management team in place before you need one, and to do as much thinking and planning to handle the unthinkable as you can before a crisis happens.

Recently, we chatted with Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Rick Adams, senior director, external relations, and Victoria McCandless, the medical center’s director of strategic communications, about how they handled the situation and what they’ve learned from the experience. The list of suggestions, ideas, and recollections that follow are gleaned from that conversation, and from a presentation they put together to teach others about their experiences. Adams and McCandless shared their perspectives during a presentation at the NESHco spring conference in May.

Not everything that happened, nor all their recommendations, can be covered in this space, but here are some key points that hospital managers, communicators, and security people should note.

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