It's every company's worst nightmare. Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" or Sam Donaldson of "PrimeTime Live" shows up on your doorstep with cameras rolling and confronts you in an accusatory manner on your business practices. For that matter, it could be the local television news team.
Most companies will never face that problem. But for those that do, the event can be a defining moment in an organization's corporate culture. For example, the executives of Johnson & Johnson still get raves for the company's forthright response to the cyanide lacing of Tylenol capsules in Chicago in 1982. The company moved to pull $100 million worth of product off store shelves and later developed safer product packaging.
Last month it was Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp.'s turn in the public eye. It's unlikely the giant hospital company will earn raves for its handling of the fearsome Mr. Wallace's report on company efforts to convert not-for-profit hospitals into for-profits and to steer patients to its own hospitals by buying Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Ohio.
For regular readers of MODERN HEALTHCARE, the report didn't break any new ground. The effort to convert assets created by civic-minded citizens and religious orders to the benefit of corporate owners and shareholders has created a furious industry debate in recent years.
But for the general population, far less familiar with healthcare business issues, the CBS report provided an extensive and perhaps shocking look at Columbia's strategies.
The probe by "60 Minutes" and a similar inquiry by the New York Times have been the subject of industry rumors for several months, providing Columbia advance warning and an opportunity to prepare a cogent response. Instead, the company ducked the "60 Minutes" cameras and inserted itself into the story by issuing a statement from public relations chief Lindy Richardson attacking the objectivity of the effort. The response violated every principle of successful media relations.
Sadly, the company missed a golden opportunity to spell out its vision of investor-owned healthcare as a way to reduce industry overcapacity, eliminate inefficiency and deliver high-quality, low-cost healthcare to more Americans. With millions of viewers watching, Columbia blew it.