5 Basics for Any Hospital Social Media Plan

Social media shouldn't be news to any organization, but hospitals have wrestled more with this communication style due to HIPAA, legal issues and risks surrounding patients seeking medical advice through the web. One of the best ways for hospitals to overcome these hurdles is through a well-structured planning process, as they match those outreach efforts with a regulatory policy for social media.

Social media plans and policies are different. A plan aligns a hospital's resources, brand, goals, metrics and other key elements to form a cohesive marketing and communication strategy. Without a plan, most social media efforts are more prone to fail. A policy, however, typically outlines employee usage of social media and establishes rules to maintain privacy and compliance.

Here, Christina Thielst, FACHE, author of Social Media in Healthcare: Connect, Communicate, Collaborate (Health Administration Press, 2010) expands upon five basic concepts for hospitals to keep in mind as they develop or enhance their social media plans.

1. Assess the hospital's readiness. Before developing a plan, hospitals should consider the following key points to get a better idea of where they should begin.
• Strengths and weaknesses. Are there any employees that not only know the ins and outs of social media, but enjoy using it? If so, their skills and talents should be leveraged, according to Ms. Thielst.

• Opportunities and threats. Powerful people within the organization might not be fully on board with social media, or they may focus more on its risks rather than benefits. This is where a comprehensive social media policy can serve as a reassurance. Social media policies should be drafted while hospitals are still working on their social media plan. This way, the two strategies can be intertwined with one another.

• Hospital culture. Examine the hospital's culture, such as its transparency or whether communication and marketing efforts are highly-regulated. For example, will multiple employees be allowed to Tweet? Or will messages need to be drafted and approved by a supervisor before being shared with the public? These boundaries should be known ahead of time and considered as the plan is devised.

2. Experiment. "Social media is much more than just Facebook and Twitter," says Ms. Thielst. She recommends hospitals consider podcasts, videos, weblogs and contributing to wiki and other social networking sites to expand outreach. As hospitals sample available options, they should also see what external content already exists regarding their organization, such as on Wikipedia or Yelp.

"Find out what people are saying about your organization. Does it fit with your brand?" says Ms. Thielst. Since social media is intended to be conversational, hospitals will also have to plan their response strategies, especially if dissatisfied social media users are voicing criticism about the hospital. "Define if you'll respond, how you'll respond and who will respond. These are three questions you should be asking yourself and thinking through the answers for different scenarios."

Maybe a hospital patient wasn’t satisfied with wait times or the food during their stay, and mentioned this on Twitter. Hospitals would be wise to proactively respond to this patient and ask if they can contact him/her for more information about what was unsatisfactory and how they would like to see that changed.

3. Start small and go slow. Ms. Thielst recommends hospitals begin with small projects, build them, evaluate and then expand. Brashly launching a Twitter account or Facebook page without established direction, goals or employee oversight can make the hospital look unorganized to the public.

"I'm a firm believer in go slow and build upon success rather than take on too much at once and not be successful," Ms. Thielst says. This may mean launching one social media platform at a time, such as Twitter page or Facebook account for a specific hospital program, and then expanding once there is comfort with the media and contribution of content is sustained Cross linking and -promoting a hospital's various social media accounts also helps advance their presence.

4. Create dialogue among disciplines. A social media plan may be a communication department's brainchild, but it takes an entire hospital to keep it running. Ideally, it's a hospital-wide effort that informs the community of that hospital's brand, news and upcoming events, and other messages about health. This comprehensive presence requires dialogue among a hospital's various components, such as physicians, nurses and leaders.  

"This is not just a time commitment for the marketing department, but also clinical and operational employees. Different people will have roles in providing content. Since social media is about conversation, it can be good to have multiple voices," says Ms. Thielst. While a small group will control the technical messaging process, departments and programs should ensure their news, announcements or ideas are heard.

5. Monitor analytics. Hospital should periodically examine their metrics to evaluate their social media performance and presence. Has the number of followers grown in the past month or week? Are platforms like blogs, Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds updated regularly, or is there a gap of days or weeks between posts? How many people have responded to messages or submitted feedback about their hospital stay? By looking at these numbers, hospitals will have a better idea of how they can improve outreach.   

Related Articles on Hospitals and Social Media:

More Than One Fifth of Clinicians Are Active Social Media Users
How Social Media is Both Friend and Foe to Healthcare Providers
5 Communication Strategies for Hospital CEOs

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