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Posted on 09.07.2010

When A Crisis Goes Viral

It’s no secret healthcare providers are embracing Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media to connect with patients. According to new research, an estimated 90 percent of hospitals use social media and up to one third have a formal social media plan in place. But embracing social media also means committing to a new level of transparency – something many providers may not fully understand until the chips are down. While most organizations want to be open and honest in a crisis, many find that’s easier said than done. Too often, the commitment to maintaining transparency gives way to a bunker mentality at the first glare of the media spotlight. That’s why it was refreshing to read about one hospital that not only responded to its critics, but also took the time to really listen to them as well. Ball Memorial Hospital made national news last month when it issued an apology to a transgender woman who complained she was mistreated during a visit to the hospital’s emergency room. The patient’s Facebook post about her experience went viral, resulting in a full-scale social media assault. To its credit, the hospital addressed the issue head on – acknowledging the incident on its own Facebook page (which had been deluged with negative comments) and issuing a series of statements expressing concern and, ultimately, regret for what had transpired. But more importantly, Ball Memorial took action. Administrators reached out to the patient to apologize for her experience and involved her in their decision to partner with local advocacy groups to develop lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) awareness and sensitivity training for employees. By gaining her support, the hospital was able to resolve this crisis and take the first steps on the path of change she sought. This hospital’s very public gaffe – and their skillful handling of the public outcry that ensued – serves as an important reminder of the role transparency should play in not only social media efforts but crisis communications in general. Too often, an organization’s first instinct is to bury its head in the sand when confronted with an ugly truth. Others chose to handle matters privately – a luxury social media forums simply don’t allow. However, throughout this incident Ball Memorial demonstrated a willingness to listen, acknowledge its own failings and provide detailed information about how it would remedy them.  The hospital also resisted the urge to remove negative postings on its own Facebook page and, instead, used the forum to address the situation directly through official statements and news articles. While it’s easy to focus on what Ball Memorial did wrong, I think it’s equally important to give them credit for what they did right. When the situation first became public, the hospital CEO said the institution had “failed to live up to its brand promise.” By addressing the situation publicly and following through with meaningful action, the hospital reclaimed ownership of that promise and used the very forum the helped fuel outrage to quell it. Another great reminder that while maintaining transparency isn’t always easy – it usually pays off.

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