Jahi McMath — not only a personal tragedy but a PR disaster

The case of Jahi McMath, the 13-year old girl who has been declared brain dead after complications from complex tonsillectomy surgery, is indeed a tragedy.  The last thing parents expect when their child has elective surgery is for the child to die.

The case has captured international attention because Jahi’s mother refuses to accept the fact that her daughter is brain dead.  Three neurologists examined the girl and found there to be no blood flow to the brain and no electrical activity.  In essence, the girl is dead.

Since the drama unfolded three weeks ago, there has been a public struggle between  Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland where the surgery took place and Nailah Winkfield, the girl’s mother.  The mother refuses to accept that her daughter is dead and has arranged for her to be taken to a long-term care facility.

One would think that the hospital would have handled the situation with the utmost sensitivity. Instead, as it reads in the media, the hospital pressured Ms. Winkfield to remove Jahi from the ventilator and accept her death.  Then, when the conflict escalated, the hospital brought in a local PR / crisis communications guru to handle the media onslaught.

There is a place for crisis communications experts.  We are among them and handle our share of PR crisis situations.  But sometimes the best counsel a crisis communicator can give his/her client is to show sensitivity rather than play hardball and lawyer up.  The words of condolence given by Sam Singer, the crisis PR guru, seem all too much like lip service.  Standing before a bank of TV cameras, to recite the demands of the hospital in order for the transfer to take place, seems harsh.  Yes, there are many legal issues involved here, we all know that.  The hospital has to follow certain protocols and their lawyers are calling the shots.  But sometimes crisis PR is not all about lawyers. Sometimes it is about putting a human face on an organization, this time the hospital.

Let’s not forget it was in this hospital that the surgery took place, and it was in this hospital that the girl died.  Whatever happens to Jahi, it is certain we have not heard the last from the family, as a lawsuit seems to be on the horizon.  Yet another reason that the hospital should have handled this situation with more care, sensitivity and strategic thinking.

This could have been a model PR crisis case, if handled appropriately.  Unfortunately, the only thing to learn from this situation is how NOT to handle a PR crisis.