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:
- 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:
- 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?
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 .