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Social media is word-of-mouth on steroids

Posted Jan 11 2011 5:29pm

by Mike Morrison Mike Morrison media relations officer

Tweets. Blogs. Posts. Followers. Retweets. Comments. Uploads. Views. Check-ins.

These are just some of the words that now define our era of social media communication. Businesses, organizations, and individuals use social media to interact with various audiences in quick, ways to build strong, lasting relationships. Hospitals should be no different.

It's often been said that the most powerful form of advertising--or in this case public relations--is word-of-mouth. Social media is word-of-mouth on steroids because it takes that person-to-person interaction, magnifies it, and makes it instantly sharable online to global audiences.

As hospital communicators, our job is to tell our organization's story. Each day our story is written by doctors, nurses, volunteers, and staff members who affect the lives of our patients and their families in major ways. A life-saving surgery, a flower delivery, a caring touch in a time of distress--some are simple and some more complicated, but each has a role to play in clinical care. Our patients too, have their own stories to tell and hospitals can learn a lot just by listening.

Traditionally we communicators told our story through the news media, and various in-house communications mechanisms while our patients told friends, family, and anyone who would listen. But today, stories are told online every minute through the power of social media.

A patient updating his or her Facebook status can share a story--positive or negative--with hundreds of friends in an instant. A family member tweeting about a nurse or a physical therapist can say a lot about your hospital, even if it's only a 140-character statement. In order to both tell our story and more importantly listen to those of others, we need to be where the stories are told.

It's easy to get caught up in the nuances social media, such as character length, channel views, and post quality, but it's best to think of it as a way for individual voices to be heard and shared. Consider the fact that according to Facebook, their site alone has over 500 million active users. That's 500 million people sharing stories and interacting with each other every day, and yes, they're also talking about your hospital.

While social media offers a new and critical medium for the communications professional to share stories, it also has empowered our audience and requires us to evolve from our traditional responsibilities.

Our interaction is not one-way, far from it, in fact. When we interact online we need to understand the two-way nature of social media and be prepared to do things like answer questions, conduct customer service, and respond to complaints. While the power of two-way communication drives social media, it often makes organizations, especially hospitals, uneasy.

But consider this. What if when the telephone was invented, you decided not to allow them at your hospital for fear of a patient calling with a complaint? Sounds absurd doesn't it? Social media is no different. The need to interact with patients and families has always existed but with the advent of social media and digital communication, that interaction has evolved, strengthened, and is more important than ever.

In future posts I'd like to share more hands-on practical information for social media communicators but for my first post I wanted to simply share my perspective on social media. Like many of my fellow communicators, I'm constantly learning to navigate through the ever changing social media world and am always amazed by how much I don't know. I'd love to read comments or suggestions from colleagues because I think a strong dialogue will help each of us and the organizations we serve. Do social media play a role at your hospital?

Mike Morrison is a media relations officer at a large Boston teaching hospital. You can follow him on twitter @MDMorrison82. (Warning: He tweets a lot about his beloved New England Patriots.)

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