Please login to the form below

Not currently logged in

Digital intelligence blog

Pharma insight on digital marketing, social media, mobile apps, online video, websites and interactive healthcare tools

Social media crisis management in healthcare

In a guest blog Uri Goren outlines a crisis toolkit for pharma

Crisis management has long been an important issue for the healthcare industry, but the continued rise in popularity of social media has made the situation even more complex.

Looking beyond pharma, the healthcare industry as a whole has been slow to adopt social media. Often there seems a cultural gap between the industry and technology, and this makes it even harder for organisations to deal with crises that develops in the social sphere.

No industry seems immune these days from a social media crisis, with large and small organisations suffering and healthcare is no exception, with Israeli hospitals among those facing problems that began on Facebook. 

One was a complaint about a derogatory remark an anesthesiologist made to a woman during labour last year that prompted the woman to write about it on the hospital's Facebook timeline. The hospital emailed her saying they would look into it, but a few minutes later she was copied in, by mistake, to an internal mail saying they want to “bulls**t” her. Naturally this made her very angry and the web, as is often the way, shared and amplified her anger. The story was subsequently picked up by the traditional media, at which point the hospital began taking the issue seriously, but the damage had already been done.

This story is one of many that show how the healthcare industry does not understand the media. This has some basic reasons – Healthcare is slow and conservative by nature, it is highly regulated, evidence-based driven, speaks in professional jargon, is complicated, maintains privacy to the highest standard and is very authoritative.

While, these attributes are necessary, to a certain degree at least, they are also the opposite of social media, which is fast moving, transparent, short (with messages that can be 140 characters or less) and uncontrolled, or uncontrollable. 

These gaps have to be bridged in the near future, and when that happens it will change the face of healthcare.

What has changed with Social Media?

Social media has fundamentally changed the relations between health and pharmaceutical organisations and their patients and customers. What has changed and how? Here are a few changes we need to bear in mind from now on:

The customer/patient has become media: Customers and patients were always satisfied or dissatisfied, and usually shared their experiences with friends and family. Nothing new there. What has changed now is that their friends are now on Facebook, and what they write can easily be published and reach thousands of people and spread like wildfire in a matter of minutes. Data published on shows that 34 per cent of bloggers voice their opinion on brands, and that 25 per cent of search results for the world's top 20 brands are for user generated content.

Content production and distribution is easy: This has particularly been driven by the growing use of smartphones, and ability to quickly self-publish in this way makes every conversation between a healthcare professional and a patient a potentially public interaction. This needs to be addressed.

No control over messaging: Organisations, especially in healthcare, are eager to control their public or brand message. The truth may be that they never really had that control, due to interference and interpretation in the message disseminated by traditional media. But now social media exposes the lack of control and lets the consumer drive the message, evening out the playing field. This becomes a major issue, especially when it comes to dealing with communications crises.

Timetables: In the 'old' days when crises became public through traditional media, organisations had time to prepare. Today firms are often left chasing after a crisis, which has often gone public before they were even aware internally it had occurred. Consequently companies can still be checking out the facts of an event when a movie of what happened has already had a million views online, in the process becoming a major news story far away in a different continent. Timetables are now measured in seconds for a global event.

No more 'top secret': Our privacy has gone up in flames due to social media, and in the Wikileaks era this is true for people as well as for organisations and brands. This loss of privacy has to be remembered in every email or document produced and in every conversation. This mode of action will prevent us from embarrassment in the future. Every business has its secrets, but we need to be prepared, should they become public and act accordingly.

Social media drives traditional media: Can you remember the last time a news show was aired without a movie taken from YouTube? Social media has become a major driver of news and media coverage. Stories break on the back of tweets and public outrage from social networks and blogs uncovers major stories. Therefore, every tweet should be treated as a potential headline. Every customer should be treated as a journalist, and managers should be trained in how to answer questions online.

The tools of the trade

There are many ways of dealing with crises that begin with social media or the web and they apply in healthcare as much as in any other industry. But there are some similarities between the rules of treating a media crises and a disease – prevention is best way! So here are a few rules I deem important.

Listen in: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is one of the best thought experiments, and a valid question about social media. The simple fact that an organisation did not hear someone criticising it doesn't mean that it didn't happen. That is why you should keep listening, with the aid of technology, to the conversation about you out there. This could help you treat a small fire before it becomes a wild fire. The second advantage is that you might learn a whole lot about perceptions of your organisation or brand.

Strengthen your social immune system: I personally admire vaccines; I think they are one of the most wonderful and important health advancements of modern times. Vaccines strengthen our immune system and in the same way firms should look to strengthen their immune systems. The way to do this in social media is through active participation, creating a positive atmosphere, building a community around the brand. All these actions will help during a crisis, when a loyal community could help you weather out a storm.

Golden hour: One of the first rules learned in treating trauma patients in the field, is that survival rates increase if you get them to a medical facility within one hour of injury (the so-called 'golden hour'). The same applies to crises in social media. Respond, and respond quickly. Even if the response is – “we still haven't got an answer but are checking into it”, it is a good one. Do not ignore the issue, because then the story becomes about a lack of response. If a public response is impossible for regulatory reasons, then reply to the customer privately. If he or she is satisfied, they will probably share it with the community, and the matter will be resolved.

Treat the cause, not the symptoms: Remember that a social media crisis arises from a real problem, so treating and solving it will turn off the flames, whereas handling only the coverage in traditional or social media but not treating the actual cause is insufficient.

Honesty, transparency, empathy: When dealing with a crisis in social media these three traits are crucial. Never lie or tell half-baked answers - they will be revealed very quickly. Every attempt to cover-up is doomed to fail. Empathy is important; treat your customers with respect. As I said before, if you fix the problem then the whole scene is changed.

Standard Operation Procedures (SOP): Every organisation has them. Health and pharmaceutical organisations even excel in this area, but all these SOPs have to be adjusted and written with social media in mind, especially the crisis management SOP. If these SOPs haven't been visited in a while, now is the time to check them out.

Digital assets: The organisation probably has a website, sometime a blog or other social media channels. All of these are digital assets, and need to be tended and kept current, so that in times of trouble they can be updated and assist the brand or firm to communicate with their customers. Furthermore, when trouble hits the organisation, all the digital assets need to be lined up with the messages relating to the crisis. That having been said, a crisis can happen in every arena on the web, and needs to be dealt with where it happens.

Educate your employees: Last, but certainly not least, is the importance of internal education. Employees can be a firm's greatest ambassadors and its eyes and ears in the social sphere. So educate employees on how to respond on the web, what is right or wrong and let them be involved, don't block them out.

To sum up, social media crises may occur on any day and can be devastating to an organisation, but they might also be an opportunity for betterment. Keeping your eyes and ears open, and being prepared will help in times of need.

Uri Goren is general manager at the Israeli digital health company

1st March 2013

From: Marketing



Subscribe to our email news alerts

Featured jobs


Add my company
Medscape Medical Affairs

Medscape Medical Affairs enables all medical affairs professionals to take a more strategic leadership role, and maximize the impact of...

Latest intelligence

Alzheimer’s Research UK highlights socio-economic inequalities in dementia risk
The charity aims to improve the number of women participating in dementia research and grow awareness of dementia risk factors...
Data security
Concerns about data security are building a strong case for clinical mobility in EMEA
Electronic medical records have transformed the storage of sensitive information but how can the healthcare sector continue to protect patient and staff data?...
The role of digital health technology tools in supporting medical adherence
How DHT-based digital interventions can help to support patients and improve adherence...