In 1998, REM Minnesota learned it was the focus of a newspaper investigation into allegations of maltreatment of its consumers. REM had previously kept the low profile one would expect from a large, family-owned provider of specialized personal care services, including community-based group homes for those with developmental disabilities.
Yet, as Minnesota’s largest private provider of such services, REM was a natural target for the newspaper’s interest. REM knew it had nothing to hide. Its exemplary 30-year reputation as an advocate for the well-being of individuals with developmental disabilities had received accolades from industry leaders, government officials and the consumers it serves. But when an initial fact-finding interview with the newspaper turned contentious, and when follow-up contact with the reporter and attempts to answer his questions remained highly argumentative, REM abandoned tried-and-true media relations principles and chose a different path.
From its extensive background research and collaboration with other industry leaders, REM decided that no amount of persuasive, reasoned appeals would dissuade the reporter from his quest. Known for his high-profile investigative reports, the reporter’s personal passion about this particular issue and his intense, self-proclaimed desire to publish led REM to conclude that an investigative series would indeed be published. Only, in 1998, no one—not even the reporter—knew that three-and-a-half years would pass before the series saw the light of day. REM credits its vigilance, an aggressive fact-based response plan and careful message targeting for its ability to succeed in minimizing the negative impact of this crisis of extended proportion.
Public Relations Challenge
The state’s largest daily newspaper planned to publish allegations of negligence and maltreatment, ignoring information it had gleaned from countless personal interviews and public documents that contradicted its thesis. REM Minnesota’s clear and compelling challenge was to defend its reputation in the wake of a high-profile, negative indictment of its business. The risk of not responding was to incur difficulty recruiting and retaining employees, new and more restrictive legislation, disapproval from advocacy groups, increased costly licensing investigations, and consumer requests to transfer out of REM facilities.
The most essential outcome REM realized it could influence was the response of its key publics. Hence, REM responded by adhering to the guiding principle attributed to Greek philosopher Thucydides, that “Most people...are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.” Using proprietary communication channels, REM carefully targeted its audiences, aggressively refuted false statements of fact, and throughout the investigation consistently “scooped” the newspaper and ensured that REM’s key publics learned first from REM of the eventual substance of the newspaper’s reports. In the end, the support it received from its key publics was near unanimous and the impact on its business, minimal.
Pre-implementation. The first step was to deploy a range of research techniques aimed at guiding strategy development and implementation.
Secondary research used to identify news investigations in other states into care provided for those with developmental disabilities. Used to identify common themes and effective response strategies.
Using a combination of primary and secondary research, REM developed a comprehensive profile of the reporter, chronicling past articles, awards, criticisms he received over a 10-year period, insight into news-gathering process, and extra-curricular involvements. We tailored our effort accordingly.
Using secondary research, we compiled an extensive catalog of industry and company data and information. Called “REM Facts,” this document centralized all essential information and was heavily relied upon in responding to the newspaper’s inquiries and communicating with targeted publics.
Objective: Minimize the impact of a negative media investigation on company business operations.
· Company managers and employees
· Consumers in REM facilities
· Disability rights advocates and industry leaders
· Government officials (state and county)
· State legislative leaders
Aggressively refute all falsehoods using methodology used by the reporter. In our profile of the reporter, we discovered a meticulous reliance upon government documents to develop his reports. We shadowed his investigation and filed identical government data requests, allowing us to respond to all his allegations over the course of the three-year investigation by referencing the very same source material already in his possession and from which he based his inquiries.
Provide reasonable and timely responses to the newspaper’s inquiries. REM was confident in its reputation and record. At every opportunity it sought to help the reporter understand the complex fabric of regulations governing REM’s industry and how to interpret information and reports. Responses were made in writing so as to minimize the potential for misunderstanding or misinterpretation.
Be always forthcoming within the constraints of patient confidentiality. Minnesota’s strict data privacy laws prohibited REM from disclosing personal data to the newspaper. In every instance, REM sought to provide helpful, detailed information that could elaborate, yet also diligently preserve and patient confidentiality.
Minimize re-publication by other news media of allegations published against REM. This would reduce the impact of the series and decrease its relevance to policymakers and advocates, as well as reduce its prominence for employees and consumers.
Inform all key audiences of the nature and scope of the investigation early and often. We sought to provide ongoing, timely updates and regularly solicited feedback or concerns (e.g., via phone, email, executive meetings) from all key audiences throughout the three-year period. This provided the news to our key audiences ahead of any news reports and preserved REM’s credibility and believability.
· Assembled a cross-functional crisis response team, which included PSB’s own media litigation attorney, to guide decision-making and ensure consistent, clear communication to all key publics. Team met regularly and frequently during the 3-1/2 year period.
· Developed a crisis communication plan designed to: reassure key audiences at critical opportunities; aggressively refute inaccuracies and falsehoods; defend consumers and their interests; support management and employees; work with advocacy groups and organizations to monitor opinion and gather information; and work with other stakeholders as identified and indicated.
· Trained internal managers and support staff on media protocol and response procedures.
· Conducted ongoing informal polling of industry leaders, legislators, consumers and employees to monitor issues and guide follow-up, prior to publication.
· One-on-one briefings and conversations with leaders of industry and disability rights organizations to monitor emerging issues, evaluate message acceptance and track reporter inquiries.
All communication efforts were designed to succinctly and consistently communicate the substance of recent newspaper inquiries and REM’s response. This vigilant fact-based response addressed information REM knew to be false, and underscored its commitment to provide exceptional care to its consumers. These core communication tools formed the basis for audience-specific responses and included:
· Position documents that detailed potential issues and concerns related to specific consumer-related events of interest to the reporter. Used to build responses to all audiences.
· Key messages document emphasizing REM’s priorities and values. Tailored to each key audience.
· Interview briefing document, in Q&A format with draft responses to anticipated reporter questions. Used in media training and later incorporated into “REM Facts.”
· Staff training and prepared response documents for office staff and REM senior managers.
· “REM Facts,” a catalog of information gathered during research on REM, regulators and the industry.
· Implementation (During Publication)
· Since we knew from our research that we had a strong, defensible case, we wanted to get to the newspaper’s legal counsel early and often. Also, we believed by doing so we could influence the outcome of the next day’s story.
· Crisis response team met daily during the series to review articles, set strategy and draft responses.
· REM phoned the managing editor and reporter informing them of multiple factual inaccuracies and putting them on notice of forthcoming legal letters.
· Letters sent daily from REM’s legal counsel to the newspaper’s legal counsel, challenging factual inaccuracies and requesting correction, as well as seeking to influence content of the following day’s story.
· REM team daily phoned facility managers, regional directors, advocates and industry leaders to gauge response and adjust level of communication as necessary.
· Letter and Clarification Document sent from REM Minnesota to employees, consumers, advocates, and legislators with REM’s response and action plan.
· Letter distributed to all other metro media asserting factual inaccuracies and discouraging their interest in republishing elements of the story.
· Op-ed article drafted and submitted to newspaper’s legal counsel and editorial pages editor (publication refused).
REM’s business operations were minimally impacted by the series. Six weeks after the series, the company continued to thrive, reporting no business cancellations and no consumer transfers to other providers.
REM’s key publics expressed support for REM. REM received 10-15 unsolicited offers to write letters to the editor of the Star Tribune defending REM. Of 2,000 letters REM sent to its consumers, REM received only 3 negative responses. Conversely, REM received dozens of supportive calls and letters from consumers, advocates, and industry leaders.
As a result of our aggressive refutations, the newspaper made several corrections to individual articles during the 6-part series, including clarifications published on Day 4 of the series, quotes from legal letters incorporated into the 3rd and 5th articles in the series, and withdrawal of REM-specific information from Day 6 (according to the newspaper’s legal counsel).
All other media ignored the series and none republished the allegations against REM.
The newspaper withdrew support for the series, evidenced by the steep reduction of its promotional efforts. Despite pre-arranged promotional appearances, the reporter did not talk publicly about the series or specific providers and cancelled an appearance on a local public issues TV show. The newspaper also dropped the series from its home page, despite ads promoting reprint sales.