A major hurdle for many healthcare communicators is convincing leadership that social media isn't something to be afraid of. Often executives can warm to the idea of having an online presence in which news, information and messages can be spread, but bristle at the thought of managing a major hospital crisis via social media.
It's important to point out that, overall, crisis communication strategy hasn't completely changed with the onset of social media, but merely evolved to include the social media audience. As this evolution is relatively new, practitioners often learn from the experiences of others, and unfortunately it's usually from failures like the Nestle incident . While not one to pile on, I'd like to simply share an example of social media crisis management done well.
On December 28, 2010, a chairlift at Sugarloaf ski resort in Maine derailed and injured several skiers . As one might imagine, it wasn't long before the story hit social and traditional media. The Sugarloaf communications team was instantly inundated with media calls. In these moments, the challenge is to sort out facts from rumor and work with members of the media to inform the public. Today, the additional responsibility of communicating to your social audience poses a new challenge. You can't simply hope your Facebook fans or Twitter followers are going to stay silent. Moreover, in Sugarloaf's case, many of these people were actually at the mountain that day sharing info via Twitter and the mountain's Facebook page. It's here that Sugarloaf rightly balanced the need to communicate with its social audience while it worked with members of the traditional media.
I want to point out its brilliantly written statement that was posted to Facebook in the form of a note, as well as tweeted out to its followers. What's extremely impressive is how the note is worded. It's serious and informative, but takes a familiar tone. It is very different than a traditional press statement. More impressive, perhaps, was how Sugarloaf managed the mechanics of its page. Normally a note like this lasts on the Facebook wall until something new is posted, moving the note one "notch" lower on the wall until it's out of view. This means that any comments from fans--good or bad--will eventually bury the note, keeping it out of view of those who visit the page. Of course, the temptation is to disable fan comments entirely but this can have a lasting effect on Sugarloaf's relationship with its fans. Its solution here was perfect. While it temporarily disabled fan posts to the wall, it enabled fans to comment on the note, meaning fans were free to express their opinions while Sugarloaf's statement remained visible on the page. Bravo.
Though there was an expected barrage of critical comments, there was an equal amount of advocates who took to the page in defense of the resort, some of which even praised Sugarloaf's response. Lastly, rather than hoping the issue would die down, Sugarloaf followed up days later to thank rescue and support workers, as well as fans, for their support in an additional Facebook note .
I could go on about the effectiveness of this crisis response, but below are some lessons healthcare communicators can take away from this case study.
1. Your hospital's social media audience is just as important as a traditional media audience. Keep them updated and informed because long after the reporters have stopped calling, your fans will still be there.
2. Failure to address your social media audience during a crisis takes away your hospital's voice in the conversation, regardless of whether you partake in social media.
3. Stifling fan communication during a crisis may prevent negative comments on your hospital's Facebook wall, but it also silences your defenders.
4. Understand the mechanics of any social network your hospital is a part of and prepare a plan ahead of time to maximize the effectiveness of a crisis response.
What do you think of the response? Was it adequate? Can it be improved upon?
Mike Morrison is a Media Relations Officer at a large Boston teaching hospital and an avid skier. You can follow him on twitter @MDMorrison82 .