How to Handle Bad Press

by Jeff Shaw

After a series of national news articles portraying the worst aspects of seniors housing, owners and operators are developing best practices for handling negative media coverage.

By Jeff Shaw

The headlines are sensational, and they make the seniors housing industry look bad. Negative news about this burgeoning sector seems to be a go-to for national and local journalists.

The most recent attack came via the Washington Post, which released a pair of articles on Dec. 17 that cast seniors housing in a negative light:

• “Understaffed and Neglected: How Real Estate Investors Reshaped Assisted Living Facilities”

• “An Alarming Number of Assisted Living Residents Die after Wandering Away Unnoticed” (along with a separate article detailing the specific communities where residents died)

Earlier in 2023 the Post also wrote articles titled “Seniors on Medicaid Are Getting Evicted from Assisted Living Homes,” and “Senior Care Is Crushingly Expensive. Boomers Aren’t Ready.” 

The New York Times, while not as punishing as the Post, hasn’t been too kind in its own right. The two days before the Post dropped its duo of stories in December, the Times released two articles titled “When the Elderly Can’t Afford the High Cost of Long-Term Care” and “’Financial Ruin Is Baked Into the System: Readers on the Costs of Long-Term Care” — both of which were reader responses to a series of articles titled “Dying Broke.” 

It’s an issue that those who work in seniors housing are all too familiar with, especially after the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, where it seemed every day brought a new article about residents dying in senior living communities. In all cases, it has felt like the accusatory finger is always firmly pointed at seniors housing owners and operators.

To make matters worse, the Post stories inspired what few ever want: a congressional hearing. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on Jan. 25 titled “Assisted Living Facilities: Understanding Long-Term Care Options for Older Adults.” It was the first hearing specifically about assisted living in 20 years, according to Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), the committee’s chairman.

“With the dramatic growth of the assisted living industry in recent decades, it’s long past time for Congress to reexamine this model and ensure it is meeting our nation’s needs,” said Casey in his opening statements.

While the recent run of bad press was not cited, many saw the writing on the wall. Stories about elopements, death, understaffing and high expenses in national news outlets had brought the issues to the fore.

“The recent Washington Post and New York Times articles clearly served as the impetus for this hearing, which focused on cost, staffing, acuity level and a lack of transparency,” wrote David Schless, president and CEO of the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) in a letter to members.

In a separate letter, Schless also reminded the members of Congress at the hearing that states regulate assisted living, not the federal government, suggesting that the fear is that the national government will try to interfere and add additional regulations.

Associations meet issue head-on

ASHA has been leading the way in putting out the media fire, but all the seniors housing associations are taking action.

In advance of the Congressional hearing, Argentum encouraged its members, as well as residents and families, to share positive stories to be included in the Senate discussion. Prior to the Post articles in December, the association also requested access to the newspaper’s data and methodology for the stories “which we strongly believe to be flawed,” according to an Argentum release on the topic.

Argentum also sent this statement to the Post in advance of the articles’ publication:

“Independent surveys show that assisted living and memory care communities are overwhelmingly popular with residents and their families. Our communities offer choice and dignity, which is why surveys find that 94 percent of residents report good or great satisfaction, and 91 percent say they feel safer than living on their own.

“Communities have security procedures such as exit/entry logs, wearable tracking devices, and cameras in place to keep residents safe, and unless an independent physician has deemed them a risk for their own safety, they are free to come and go from their home as they choose. Nothing is more important than our residents’ safety, and any fatality is one too many. Any community in which an incident occurs is subject to appropriate state regulatory penalties, including loss of license. And while we have serious concerns about the validity of the Post’s data, even taking it at face value, fatalities due to wandering are 0.0015 percent across the more than 6.2 million assisted living residents served in the last five years.”

Katie Smith, president and CEO of LeadingAge, released a similar response, but without the focus on the Post’s methodology and data.

“Assisted living is an essential option for many older people who need some services and support to live safely and as independently as possible, including for those living with dementia and in need of memory care. As the number of older adults grows, so too will demand for these services. Older adults and families need and deserve a strong national aging services system that supports and sustains providers of high-quality assisted living, including adequate and well-trained staff.

“To be clear, LeadingAge has no tolerance for bad care, and quality is a top priority for our nonprofit, mission-driven members. Our association has participated in multiple efforts to build sector consensus on assisted living quality measures and other topics. Our engagement in those, as well as our advocacy, educational and research efforts to improve care throughout aging services, are ongoing and, given the stresses of our country’s current approach to long-term care financing, increasingly urgent.”

But statements can only do so much, and more people almost certainly read the newspaper articles than the responses from industry associations.

What to do now

ASHA, for its part, took a more direct approach, providing its members with a Media Relations and Crisis Communications Handbook.

The 44-page booklet features a section on developing a media relations plan, targeting relevant media, forming relationships with those outlets and highlighting positive news. On the flip side, the handbook includes methods for creating a crisis plan and advice on when not to talk at all versus when to call a news conference.

The Times stories focusing on costs provide an opportunity to put the stories in a positive light, says Schless.

“This is the positive to come out of the widespread media attention — many readers being exposed to the costs associated with long-term care,” he says. “Emphasizing need for awareness is the first step in addressing a looming long-term care crisis.”

In a letter to the editor following those Times articles, Schless dove deeper on the topic.

“Your reporting goes a long way in calling attention to the difficulty of finding solutions to address the cost of long-term care for our aging population,” he wrote. “These challenges can be met with some hard work in Congress, the [regulatory] agencies and in the states to create more options for our seniors. Policymakers need to think broadly for ways to incentivize retirement savings, reactivate the market for long-term care insurance, expand Medicare benefits and much more.”

Regarding the elopements and death stories, ASHA provided specifics on how members should respond if one of their communities was singled out in those pieces. A prepared statement was provided for those who were identified in the article, as well as a legal plan of action for members who were named inaccurately.

“There is no accurate way for us to predict the impact that these articles will have on our industry,” Schless wrote in a letter to ASHA members. “We also do not know the extent of the pickup of this topic [by] other media sources and whether additional coverage will be generated.

“It is imperative that we prepare ourselves for the potential media queries that may follow. And, more importantly, we need to be ready to assure our residents, their families, our employees and our partners that we, as an industry, are responding appropriately to this situation and can answer any questions they might have. Ultimately, we should continue going about our business of providing exceptional care to all those whose lives and well-being have been entrusted to us.”

That same letter included a list of key considerations for dealing with the news media, whether for these articles or any in the future:

(1) Develop a corporate policy for your community personnel when fielding inquiries from the media. It often makes sense to have all media inquiries redirected to a specific individual in your organization who is best prepared to speak to the media.

(2) Build a public relations plan that includes preparation for crisis situations.

(3) Identify and train company spokespersons at the corporate and/or community level for both positive stories and crisis response.

(4) Develop key messages in advance. Having the core messaging defined will allow you to devote your time to researching the specific facts and then update pre-approved language so you can respond quickly in a crisis.

(5) Partner with your legal team in advance to agree in general on what should and should not be said, saving time (and frustration) when you are faced with a media response.

Sevy Petras, CEO of operator Priority Life Care, says sometimes no response may be the best response.

“It’s a tough call on responding to negative press, as there is some merit in just letting it have its moment and letting that moment pass,” she says. “To some extent, responding to the negative just brings more attention to the article and pushes it up in people’s feed. I think it’s a case-by-case basis on whether a formal response should be made.”

She adds that these sorts of crises are what the associations are here for. When the industry bands together and presents a unified front, it’s easier to respond to negative articles.

“Now is the time as an industry we need to unite,” says Petras. “This is not the first — and likely won’t be the last — attack. What our communities deliver is not always easy. We are people taking care of people, which can bring challenges. 

“But challenges also bring opportunities. We can and should always be looking for new ways to assist and support our employees in the communities so that we can deliver the best services and care possible.”

At the end of the day, the best approach might be to “hold the line” — continue providing quality service and let the general public see what the industry is made of.

“The industry does a great job caring for a very vulnerable population,” says Schless. “Unfortunately, in very rare instances there are adverse outcomes when dealing with millions of people. The industry has a great story to tell and needs to do just that every day.”

You may also like