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Allay fears and build loyalty by using social media during crises

Posted Oct 20 2010 11:09am

By Nancy Cawley Jean

Hospitals are not exempt from the economic woes our country is facing. More and more, we hear of hospitals facing layoffs to 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!

Nancy Cawley Jean is a senior media relations officer for Lifespan in Providence, RI, where she oversees social media for Lifespan's five partner hospitals and also manages the national media relations for research at Rhode Island Hospital and its Hasbro Children's Hospital. Find her at @NancyCawleyJean on Twitter.

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