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A lesson in crisis communications as St. Louis-based Centene deals with negative press

Wayne Pratt | St. Louis Public Radio
Centene's headquarters in Clayton

St. Louis-based Centene Corporation found itself in a precarious situation this week when a BuzzFeed News investigation uncovered that a troubled compounding pharmacy the company now owns sold drugs used in executions to the state of Missouri.

Centene acquired Foundation Care, the pharmacy with a checkered past, late last year and responded that under its ownership, “Foundation Care has never supplied, and will never supply any pharmaceutical product to any state for the purpose of effectuating executions.”

Centene declined to answer additional questions from BuzzFeed News reporter Chris McDaniel or St. Louis Public Radio.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh went ‘Behind the Headlines’ to discuss crisis communications and how companies deal with negative news. Joining him was Linda Locke, senior vice president and partner with Standing Partnership, a marketing communications consulting firm based in St. Louis.

“The first rule of crisis response is actually to be prepared, to anticipate ahead of times,” said Locke. “The second rule is to understand that there's no secrets in 2018 with social media tools and continual tracking of our behavior ... and you can't assume that things can be buried, and I think that's one of the problems that we're seeing in the execution drug story.”

Prior to the publication of McDaniel’s investigation, Centene Corporation refused to comment. Only after the story was published did the company make the aforementioned statement.

Related: BuzzFeed News reporter Chris McDaniel talks with St. Louis on the Air about his investigation

“When you refuse to comment the assumption from the external parties is that you have something to hide, that you’re defensive. Because if you had nothing to hide, you would talk about it,” Locke said. “If you're an organization in 2018 and you're not prepared ahead of time for the likely crises that you should anticipate, then you're not doing a good job as a manager or leader of the organization.”

It’s difficult to know whether Centene should have anticipated its current crisis because the company won’t answer the question of whether it was aware of Foundation Care’s role in selling execution drugs. The company also hasn’t responded to McDaniel’s questions about the future of one of Foundation Care’s leaders.


Locke explained that the leader of an organization has four choices during a crisis: apologize, deny, justify and excuse.

“There's a lot of academic research that says a sincere apology will tamp down a situation much faster than evasiveness,” Locke said. “If you say we have this problem and we're addressing it and here's what we're doing, then people respect you.”

To hear more about crisis communications, listen to the full conversation.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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