Irene Schooled Me: Seven Lessons for Optimizing Hospital Social Media

flickr: NASA Goddard

This past week I landed in Washington, D.C. the day the earthquake struck and I left the day Hurricane Irene arrived.

Being in a major city sandwiched between two natural disasters helped me reflect on the importance of coordinated social media efforts for hospitals during natural disasters and gave me a renewed sense of empathy for both patients and family members.

I was in D.C. because I was taking my daughter to her first year of college when I was forced to leave early due to flight cancellations caused by the impending hurricane. Even though I wasn’t in D.C. for healthcare reasons, I felt like my experience paralleled the concerns of patients and their families.

As with most parents who are leaving their 18-year-old daughters across country (2,707 miles away!), my anxiety was high. What kind of mother was, I leaving my daughter (who is used to predictable sunny and 70 California weather) bracing for a hurricane just one day after moving across country to start her college career?

On my way home, my flight stopped in Memphis and I immediately checked her university’s website. I had many questions. How was the school going to keep my child safe? How were they preparing for the aftermath (Food? Water? Generators?). How were they communicating with her so she would know what to do when the hurricane arrived?  How could I receive updates on new news related to the hurricane? For my daughter and me, a hurricane was a totally new experience.

For many hospital patients, health procedures and being confined to a hospital are also totally new experiences.

With our mobile society, patients’ family members are not always nearby (especially if the procedure is unplanned and due to a health emergency). Hurricane Irene and my anxiety-filled experience reminded me of some key lessons:

Your website is critical

Don’t let your new focus on social media pull your attention away from the importance of your Web page. Crucial as first introductions, Web pages are institutions’ handshakes to new patients and family members. Build in systematic reviews often to assure accuracy and ease of navigation.

In crises, place a visible home page link

When there’s a crisis, place a visible link on the home page immediately. During Irene’s approach and immediately after, I surfed the websites of many universities and local hospitals. The ones with a bold link on the top third of the page were the most help in quickly accessing information. (Note the bright yellow box on Washington Hospital Center’s site.)

Connect your website with social media

Tie together your website with social media. Relay the information in multiple ways to give people choices on how to find the information – Facebook pages, Twitter, email alerts, etc. Add your Twitter feed to your Web page.

Even though I received a postcard informing me of an “alert” system for my daughter’s university, I didn’t sign up until Hurricane Irene. Use the opportunity to make contact via social media with new and interested audiences.

Remember to respond

In a crisis, it’s easy to focus on distributing information, but it’s also a key time to remember what makes social media so powerful – interaction. Don’t forget to respond as well as distribute information. If someone follows your tweets and asks you a question, take advantage of the interactive nature of social media and respond.

Give your audience what they want

Know your audience and give them what they want. Howard University knew that this is the age of the “helicopter parent” and quickly produced a video showing preparations being made–from stocking food and water to reassuring interviews from campus police, the dean and the communications director. They also posted an “all clear” bulletin after the storm passed.

They knew their audience and gave them the information they needed. What do your patients and their families want to know? Overall, the universities did a far superior job on this than did hospitals. Universities realize that parents are an important audience; hospitals must remember the reality that patients’ families are an important audience and make it easier for them to find information.

Don’t rely on patients to relay information to their families. There are many possible obstacles that can get in the way of that communication channel.

Be generous in linking

Be generous in linking to other informative and credible sites. I appreciated the sites that connected me to the Washington Post’s blog and hurricane tracker so I could find out a broader, regional view of the hurricane.

I also appreciated being connected to the city’s alert system. What other local agencies in your area provide valuable information that you can link to?

Place calls to family

Overall, the most reassuring moment was when I heard my daughter’s voice on the other end of the phone saying the storm had passed and, aside from some downed trees, her campus and she faired well. Consider establishing a volunteer program to help elderly patients, or patients who may not be mobile, place calls to family members. Encourage your nursing staff to answer patients’ phones when they are in the room if patients are unable.

No better time than a crisis to build stronger ties with patients and families. They’ll long remember what you did to reassure them at a difficult time.

How we help

Hive Strategies helps hospitals engage patients through social media. We don’t manage social media. Instead, we help hospitals develop an effective social media strategy and mentor them through the implementation process. Read about our services. Start a conversation. Email us or call us at 503-472-5512.

4 replies
  1. Jean Kelso Sandlin
    Jean Kelso Sandlin says:

    Jason: That list would be a terrific resource. When we landed in DC the earthquake had just hit and CNN’s coverage still had a lot of gaps. I went to my Twitter feed. There were photos posted and news from all over the city. It was there I learned that we should expect traffic delays (yes, my Twitter feed was right on that one!) I like your idea of bringing the key feeds together.

  2. Jason Boies
    Jason Boies says:

    I’d add the idea of setting up a twitter list that includes all the accounts you’d need access to in an emergency. FEMA, the American Red Cross, any local fire or police departments that may have accounts, local TV or radio stations, state emergency agencies, even the Weather Channel.

    Good post as always Hive!

    Jason Boies –
    Radian6 Community Team

  3. Jacque Myers
    Jacque Myers says:

    All great points. In addition to including a link, I would recommend including the most pertinent information directly on the home page. For all of these tips, its important to be prepared BEFORE the crisis emerges. Who has the authority to post content on the website, and how do you get in touch with them? Who will lead engagement on social media channels, and have they had training in risk and crisis communications? The plan should also include accommodations for increased traffic, such as stripping the home page or moving to the cloud. Of course, we all hope these plans never have to be implemented!


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