The Tale of a Social Media Crisis

Man in hospital bed. Photo from canva.com

I have a story for you.  It is a true story from the hospital where I last worked.  It begins with the admission of a very ill patient. I wish I could report that his care was excellent, but truthfully the staff overlooked something important.  With hundreds of staff members caring for hundreds of patients every day, errors occasionally happen.  When they do, the staff disclose the mistake to the patient and family.  Usually the honesty is appreciated, the care providers work to rectify the situation and commit to doing better.

Going From Bad to Worse

In this situation, the closest family member was a social media celebrity with hundreds of thousands of followers.  She routinely has thousands of responses to her posts.  She chose to share her complaints about the hospital on her social media accounts, which was certainly her prerogative. Unfortunately, her posts boldly exaggerated the situation, and included allegations that were patently untrue.  Here’s what happened next:

Crisis Sign
Photo by canva.com
  • The hospital tried to work with the family to address their concerns, and to deal with the untrue allegations; this was extremely time consuming, and entirely unsuccessful.
  • Local and national press picked up the story, broadcasting her allegations widely.
  • Due to privacy legislation, the hospital’s response was limited to acknowledging that they were in discussions with the family.
  • There was a tremendous amount of “piling on”; despite hearing only one side of the story, her followers and consumers of the news stories made horribly disparaging statements about the hospital. Other celebrities, including celebrity physicians, jumped on the bandwagon with intent to shame the hospital.
  • Staff members became very demoralized; they felt this individual was using the situation to grow her social media presence. The relationship between the family and the staff deteriorated.
  • Eventually the patient was successfully discharged.
  • The celebrity continued to post about this episode periodically, often threatening retaliation.
  • The hospital was considering legal action when the posts finally stopped.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

This event was enormously exhausting, frustrating, and very hurtful.  However, it was also a learning opportunity.  With help from our regional communications experts, we learned these lessons:

Lessons Learned
Photo by canva.com
  • Do not engage in on-line debate. You will not win and may make it worse. 
  • Attempt to take the conversation offline.  Use comments like “We’d like to connect with you to sort this out; can you send us a DM with your number so we can call you?”
  • Understand that as terrible as this is, it will pass quickly.  People have short attention spans and short memories. All it takes is one big news story to divert their attention.
  • Help staff understand that it will pass quickly and commit to standing by them until it does.
  • Don’t hide; review your planned social media posts for relevancy but keep posting.  

Consider Crisis Planning In Advance

It was a horrible experience, but should it happen again, the hospital will be better prepared to weather the storm.  The consultants at Convince & Convert have created this useful step-by-step guide to handling a crisis. (Baer & Teague, 2020).

Have you seen this kind of phenomenon on social media?  Does your brand have a crisis plan?  


References

Baer, J., & Teague, L. (2020, September 28). Don’t be scared, be prepared: How to manage a social media crisis. Convince and Convert. https://bit.ly/2WB6hZV .  


Crisis Ahead Sign – Photo from canva.com

You’re working overtime to keep your customers happy when someone drags you through the social media mud. Do you know what to do? We’ve been there and lived to tell the secrets to success. https://wp.me/p3QRy0-t47

Meeting Participants in Distress – Photo from canva.com

Someone sets out to damage your brand on social media.  Do you have a plan to survive the storm?  We’ve been there and are happy to share the goods!    https://wp.me/p3QRy0-t47    #SocialMediaTip   #SocialMediaStrategies

14 thoughts on “The Tale of a Social Media Crisis

  1. Brenda, what a great blog. It is such a horrible thing to go through, but unfortunately, I have been seeing similar situations online a lot more since the pandemic. We often forget how powerful social media is, and quickly something can be twisted.

    I never respond negatively to any comments that are left on my social media platforms, I usually go about the route to contact someone if they are not happy with something, or I directly call them.

    • Thanks so much Brittney. I agree – it is easy to underestimate the power of social media – both negative and positive!

  2. Hi Brenda

    Excellent post! Piggybacking on negative stories that already have a lot of traction has certainly been a trend and an easy way for social media celebrities to gain followers. Is it ethical or moral? Not in my view. It seems that a partial truth is good enough for most to get on a bandwagon. Sorry that your co-workers had to take the brunt of the one-sided negative publicity.

    I don’t think a single crisis has ever been averted, a mind changed, or a world problem solved through Facebook posts or arguments. I have had to train myself to scroll past posts without commenting. During the term of the previous POTUS, I got into some knock-down dragged out fights with at least one of my relatives and his posse. In the end, nothing had changed other than stress levels and blood pressure.

    One technique that was used by many social media influencers to gain a new audience was to watch for a Trump Tweet and then try to be the second post to respond on his thread. By doing so, you instantly added at least 31+ million million followers to your audience. Devious tactic, but effective. Check out this article for more on this story: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/charliewarzel/trollpotusgrowthhack

    Thanks for your story. It raises many relevant issues. Cheers!

  3. Thanks Kevin, and thanks also for that fascinating article. It definitely highlights the underbelly of this business! Social media in the Trump era would definitely be worth a blog post or two, but I believe you are correct: no minds were changed through those on-line arguments (same deal with Canadian politics, gun control, and now COVID-19 vaccinations). But that’s okay – with our social media training we are going to quietly change the world by gently helping everyone see the light (whatever that may be!) 🙂
    Brenda

  4. Wow! What a stressful situation that must have been. I’m sorry you had to go through that but appreciate that you shared the experience here.
    I can definitely see how momentum picked up on social media here. It must have been very tricky, as a hospital, to respond to that publicly. You can’t disclose personal information regarding the staff or the patient, so the allegations someone made on social media is really the only information others can use as ammunition. News agencies EAT this kind of content up, so it’s no surprise that they ran with the allegations too, though I bet the folks who wrote the stories and provided sign offs ultimately knew the hospital was in no situation to comment. They probably also knew the poster was exaggerating, but that doesn’t generate clicks.
    I can say with certainty my company has never considered a crisis plan, but having one is to everyone’s advantage. Thanks again for sharing, you write beautifully.

    • Thanks so much Rachel! I agree with you – I think the journalists were driven by the drama, and probably new it wasn’t good reporting. It’s unfortunate because we would like to be able to have a better relationship with the press – one that could actually be used to further the health of our community – but as you say, that doesn’t sell.

  5. Hi Brenda, thank you for sharing this horrifying story. I have heard of situations like this. Unfortunately, the person post these false accusations has some power with her followers.

    What she did not realize or did not care, they she could be endangering the life of potetial patients in that hospital, meaning that they will avoid it. She also affected the reputation of the hospital and the staff.

    Thank you for reminder us that a crisis management plan is essential to us all on social media.

    Cheers, Meherbani Kaur

    • Thanks Meherbani – and yes, you are absolutely correct. Having worked in the field a long time, I believe patients and families need to find the sweet spot between trusting their care providers and being able to advocate for themselves if the system lets them down. No one should trust blindly, but having unnecessary doubts about your care team due to “fake news” is not helpful either. Ironically, her complaints were presented under the guise of wanting to improve the system, but I am doubtful that was her motivation at all.
      Brenda

  6. Hi Brenda,

    Great Blog! I especially like the point about reviewing your scheduled posts for relevancy. You wouldn’t want to fan the flame by posting something insensitive or that could be interpreted the wrong way, but yet you do still want to keep posting.

  7. Thanks Linda. Yes, that was a good lesson. I read somewhere that all publications should be stopped the moment you enter crisis mode, but our advisors said that this rule only applies to communication about the incident, and as you’ve noted, to make sure you don’t post something that could add fuel to the fire.

  8. Brenda, this was so excellent! I really can see how something like this can be taken from bad to worse, and your advice at conclusion is well received and will be remembered. It’s very disheartening when people are not only working so hard, but are in actuality, over worked, and in a thankless job at that. It really is a tale as old as time, and there are many professions where individuals put their lives on the line, and their personal lives on hold, for the good of their people and the community. Whenever that entity cannot represent itself publicly, as was the situation your hospital found itself in, that entity is left defenceless, and the offender gets bolder. In a world where media is now in the hands of individuals as much as it is in the hands of corporations, we really must take all necessary precautions to be pre-emptive in our responses to these shattering experiences. Excellent blog! Thank you for it!

    • Thanks so much – I think you hit the nail on the head here: “when the entity is left defenseless, the offender gets bolder.” As we both know, there are some things in life that just aren’t fair; all we can do is, as you point out, take the necessary precautions and then move on. It was a good but painful lesson! Thanks for your comments!

  9. Hi Brenda,

    I’m sure that was stressful to go through. Dealing with patients who are upset with care talking negatively about your hospital/medical office is really hard to deal with due to HIPPA (or whatever the Canadian equivalent is). On one hand, you want to speak out to say what actually happen to explain the situation better, but you legally can’t.

    The best thing to do would be like you said, to take the conversation offline and help the customer/client. I’m glad there was a lesson to be learned.

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