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Musings on social media and the world as I see it


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Managing a hospital crisis in the new media world

A crisis. Most hospitals have one at some point. If your organization hasn’t faced one yet, it will. Whether a local disaster fills your ED to overflowing or a sentinel event occurs and makes the headlines, your staff and your board will need to know what happened, and the media will probably be camped outside your front door. For the communications team, it’s all hands on deck.

While every situation is unique, when it comes to communication surrounding a crisis, there are general rules that apply to all. I believe that being visible, honest and timely are the most important.

In a crisis, the last thing you should do is assume it will all blow over, or that word will not get out. Definitely not true, particularly in the age of Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media. Playing possum will not make the situation go away. To use an old advertising tagline, “inquiring minds want to know.”

When something happens in a hospital, you need to quickly assess the situation, develop your course of action and key messages, identify the best spokesperson and address the situation head on.

If you’re not visible and discussing the matter publicly, you’re leaving the facts open to interpretation. So many recent scandals provide the support for this argument. Consider Tiger Woods, who still hasn’t spoken publicly, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who disappeared for days and was less than candid about his whereabouts. This isn’t exactly the best approach when responding to a crisis.

Being honest
While there may be details that should not or cannot be made publicly known about the situation at hand, recognizing the situation, taking responsibility for the event and providing the overall facts are absolutely for any crisis response, regardless of your audience.

A crisis can damage a reputation quickly, but not recognizing the crisis or not responding can be even more damaging. An appropriate response can go a long way to maintaining or rebuilding trust.

Of course while some things are more easily forgiven than others, an “I’m sorry” can go a long way toward rebuilding trust with your community (consider the legislation now being proposed to make the “I’m sorry” clause for doctors a law). Public recognition of the situation and the apology must come from a trusted source, and determining the appropriate spokesperson can greatly impact the success of your crisis communication response.

Being timely
The concept of “timely” has changed quite a bit in recent years. Five years ago, your crisis response would be timed to a news cycle, with your internal audiences of staff and the hospital board notified in advance of the general public. But that news cycle no longer exists with the rise of social media. Information flows 24/7 and it is not from typical news sources. The emergency plan landing on New York’s Hudson River and news of Michael Jackson’s death, for example, were both reported first on Twitter.

When a crisis happens in your hospital, there are lots of people examining the situation from many angles – senior leaders, risk management, legal, medial directors, communications/media relations, etc. This will have an impact on just how timely you can be, but it is the communications professional’s responsibility to produce the right communications at the right time.

Given today’s myriad of communication tools, you should make use of all of them to get your response out there. If you provide a statement to the media, post it on your web site. If you have a recorded message from your president, post that on your web site and link to it through Twitter. If you have a Facebook account, post your video there and post your official statement on your Facebook fan page.

Remember — it’s about being visible, honest and timely. And because of the way news is now communicated, you must assume that your audience is not just local anymore. Sending a statement to your local television station or doing an interview with your hometown paper is not an adequate response. In a true crisis, you can expect e-mails and web postings from people internationally who may have never heard your brand name before, but they will now. That is the world we live in today.

So those are the basic rules. Are they always followed in every situation? Unfortunately, no, but they should be!

This post was originally written for and appeared on www.hospitalimpact.org.


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Recent headlines provide a lesson for hospitals

I’m a big proponent of taking responsibility for your actions. It is a practice I try to live by, and I expect the same from friends and colleagues, as well as companies. I think this is especially important in a crisis, and I truly believe it can make or break a company’s brand management.

Social media provides us with incredibly useful tools for doing just that. While some hospitals are still reluctant to break into this medium for a host of reasons, recent headlines are providing lessons in how these tools can help you through a crisis, and are providing some important lessons for us all.

For example, right now there’s a brand in big trouble–BP.

We all know about the oil spill in the Gulf. The news is everywhere. This week, Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, was talking up the media circuit, appearing on national shows like “Today” and “The Early Show”. Not only did he not take responsibility for the spill, he even went so far as to say that it wasn’t his company’s fault.

Even though the company is doing the right thing by addressing the crisis, from a public relations perspective, Hayward ruined any message that might have come after that. Although BP’s social media team is attempting to do their part by tweeting stories about the company’s efforts under the sea and about the hotline it has set up, it all falls short in trying to save the brand because there’s no responsibility assumed or stated.

An apology and accepting responsibility for an error goes a long way, whether it be because of an oil spill or a medical error. By starting there, you have much more of a chance to redeem your reputation.

In a previous post, I noted that recognizing a lingering issue publicly is the right thing to do in a crisis situation; doing so through public channels like social media can go a long way toward repairing a brand. However, while BP’s faux pas is pretty clear here, there’s another situation that is not so clear cut. It’s that of blogger and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center CEO Paul Levy, who has built quite a reputation around being transparent.

Initially, he seemed to be practicing anything but transparency with regards to an incident involving a personal relationship with a fellow employee. I’m a big fan of Levy’s, and could understand his reluctance to air his dirty laundry in the social media realm, but it seemed to be out-of-character for him to avoid talking about a problem, regardless of how personal it was. That, in itself, was a bit jarring.

Earlier this week, however, Levy issued two apologies: one through a statement distributed to the media, and another, a more personal apology to the readers of his blog. While Levy, no doubt, will still face much scrutiny for his actions (and especially for waiting so long to comment on them), his personal apology to blog readers already has produced a fair amount of support via comments to the post.

Personally, I’ve been part of quite a number of crisis situations in the hospital setting, as well. I understand how hard it is to publicly admit a mistake. That usually comes in the form of a well-written, carefully planned media statement. The world of social media is part of the follow-up, and in most cases, the social media component includes what is being done as a result, like a video message from the president, or correcting blatantly inaccurate comments in social channels. I think there are several reasons for this. Social media is still fairly new and represents a bit of the unknown. For most, there’s no comfort level with social media. And of course, “We’re sorry,” isn’t often part of a brand’s standard media statement language!

What we have to remember, howeer, is that through social media, word now spreads like wildfire, and you must be prepared to respond if you’re brand is threatened. Rumors abounded last month after a faulty virus update from McAfee disabled our entire system’s computers. The following tweets show not only how rumors can easily–and quickly–distort the truth, but also how they can be quickly addressed if you’re monitoring for this information.

* @GetWired retweeted this from @vmyths: McAfee rules out cyber-terror re: yesterday’s antivirus attack. Death @ RI hospital a coincidence until proven otherwise.

* We responded with: @vmyths Good morning. I can assure u that no deaths occurred as result of yesterday’s McAfee issue. Patients were safe throughout.

* He then posted the following: @RIHospital asserts “patients were safe throughout” the McAfee antivirus attack last week. Don’t get duped by urban legends!

With what we know about brand management and the power of social media, when an opportunity arises to take responsibility for a situation, I’d suggest the best practice might be to whittle down those media statements to a simple message: an apology that will fit into 140 characters. That tweet might be the one that’s heard around the world.

This post was originally writtten for and appeared on www.hospitalimpact.org.


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Allay fears and build loyalty in a crisis through social media

Hospitals are not exempt from the economic woes our country is facing. More and more, we hear of hospitals facing layoffsto address budget deficits. This can undoubtedly cause concerns among patients and members of the community. They may worry about whether they will be able to get the care they need if your hospital appears to be downsizing.

Hospitals that use social media for marketing are often inclined to NOT use these tools during difficult times. Take these two instances:

Let’s look at St. Francis Medical Center in CT. Earlier this year, the hospital laid off 200 of its 3,500 staff, according to this Hartford Courant story. Searching the hospital’s website, I could not find any information on this major news. The hospital also has a Facebook page, although there was nothing posted over the months when the layoffs took place. An article on the Hartford Guardian site indicated that there was a written statement, but I never found any comments directly from the hospital through a Google search.

Last week media reported that UMassMemorial Health Care in Mass. would lay off 350 of its staff. A tour of the system’s website and online newsroom turned up no information on the announcement. While they are not on Facebook, they are on Twitter. A quick glance of their timeline shows no response at all to the news of the layoff, although there were several tweets the day of the Boston Globe story, but not about the hospital’s situation.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, tough times are the perfect opportunity to use social media. Both Twitter and Facebook can serve as customer service tools, a vehicle to promote your quality of care, a way to be transparent with your staff and your community, and a way to allay fears and continue to build loyalty within your online community. It’s also a way to get your message out in your own words.

The use of social media needs to be based on openness and honesty. It’s important to recognize not only the good but the bad. Issuing a statement or press release to the media is fine, but in today’s social media savvy world, people are tweeting and posting on Facebook and leaving comments on news sites about your hospital and the news that was generated.

It’s important that you be part of the conversation and not appear invisible, or appear to be ignoring it. Let’s take the example of Beth Israel Deaconness in Boston earlier this year, when its CEO, Paul Levy, was in the news for a “lapse in judgment.”

Originally, the story played out in the media with written statements and interviews with hospital PR folks. This seemed out of character for Levy, who has been a strong advocate for transparency, on his well known blog, Running a Hospital. In his post called “Going Public,” he stayed true to form and was open and honest about the situation, and gained a lot of respect in return. I, for one, saluted him and was relieved to see that he had not cast his belief in open communication to the wind when confronting a crisis!

I believe that addressing both the good and the bad is vital when it comes to having a presence in social media. It’s critical to continue to have a presence during difficult situations, and respond to concerns. It’s an opportunity to show that you recognize those concerns.

It really is okay to show you’re troubled by the event or situation, just like it’s okay to apologize when mistakes are made. But it’s also a chance to show what you’re doing to address the situation and allay the fears that patients and their families may be having.

What can you do in tough times? Build a page on your website to show what you’re doing to address the situation, use Twitter and Facebook to post information that shows you’re recognizing and addressing the problem, and point people to the information on your website. It’s also an opportunity to encourage feedback. Knowing what people want to know can help you tailor your message and directly address what they are worried about.

It’s time to embrace social media, because that’s where the world is turning for information. Hospitals are no exception.

Have you seen good examples of a hospital using social media in an internal crisis? Share them!

This post was originally written for and appeared on www.hospitalimpact.org.