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I recently had the pleasure of managing a hospital’s social media channels during an outbreak in some of their units.

Yes, the pleasure.

I was able to communicate public health updates effectively while working with a client team. I used both scheduled and unscheduled updates to manage public health messages. My tools of choice are Hootsuite for their tweet scheduler and to easily set up listening streams, and the Facebook post scheduler. (My client’s name is not important for discussing the benefits of scheduled posts, but they are spectacular!)

I’m sharing a general timeline of my decisions for posting during a crisis, and for using post scheduling effectively.

First, we found out about the problem. I noticed it during my usual morning Twitter check, after the name of the hospital showed up in my listening stream.

Learning: most hospitals have standard procedures for issues in general, and outbreaks specifically. If your client or your organization hasn’t included social media channels in your process, get to work adding it!

Next, I sent a group email and asked to be included on communications updates for media. The group email included the media specialist, the communications coordinator, the director of communications and the vp of communications & public relations. In the group email, I outlined how I heard about the issue and asked for:

  • confirmation that there really was an outbreak
  • description of current messaging for the public
  • description of outbreak measures
  • yes/no on whether outbreak measures can be discussed on social channels or anywhere

Learning: looping in everyone brings the team up to speed on the public reaction to the outbreak right away and reminds them that individuals will share media stories and so must be kept in the loop.

In the email thread that ensued, we set up a shared google doc – just notetaking, nothing fancy, where we could contribute approved messages and suggested messages pending approval. Doing this gave the team instant access to simple communications and gave me instant access to approvals, with very little time spent waiting or worse, guessing.

In all emails, I reminded the team that nothing would be posted unless they specifically approved it, putting the onus on them to reply with a simple yes or no.

Learning: lots of departments, not just communications, are a part of dealing with an outbreak. Whether in-house or consulting from outside, approvals can take precious time, so keep yourself calm and don’t be afraid to send reminder pings when conversations need responses and you need approvals to get the responses out.

Next, I reminded the team that on their personal channels, words like ‘outbreak’ and ‘thenameofthevirus’ and ‘contagious’ are technically correct, but can be alarmist and don’t reflect the small number of affected patients.

Learning: health organizations like definitions. It’s important to remind your team that though the term ‘outbreak’ (or other word during your crisis, like ‘riot’) might be technically appropriate, words have human value. People on communications teams (and approval teams) need to think about people and how they’ll react, not just the definition according to the governing body. We solved this by using phrases like ‘outbreak measures’ and ‘outbreak limited to fewer than 10 people’ – this framed the outbreak as something we had under control, rather than something scary.

Next, the team confirmed with me that the most important message was that the hospital was open and that people should still come to the hospital for usual reasons. This is really important, and where scheduled posts became my helpful friend! This happened on a Friday, so I needed to be sure that people understood that it was safe to go to the hospital over the weekend. My listening and emails were still on in case anything changed, and I was prepared to cancel scheduled posts if it became necessary. I wrote one standard ‘come to the hospital’ message per channel and got it approved. It included the message, two key hashtags, and a ‘please share’ message. I set it to repeat three times each day on Twitter and once each day on Facebook.

Learning: saving time in a crisis is helpful. The unique properties of this situation made scheduled posts really useful. It would NOT have been useful to schedule posts about the outbreak itself, the parts of the hospital affected or the measures used to manage it. I also didn’t schedule things too far out. Using scheduled posts to cover the upcoming 48-72 hours keeps things within range of the predictable, and doesn’t overreach to make unsafe promises.

Next, I set up a check in each morning with the team to find out if there were changes and if there were changes worth announcing. I did not send a social media overnight report, because it was not requested. This might not be the case in your organization. Some crises require constant reporting so that the team can stay on track with what happens on their channels. In this case, the team would have found that level of reporting burdensome, so I only shared occasional, relevant messages that required specific responses.

Learning: Life is not The West Wing – or any Aaron Sorkin creation. If your team wants a ton of reporting right now (I WANT HOURLY UPDATES UNTIL THIS IS FIXED! – YOU GOT IT! yelled while running down dim hallways), provide it, but make sure information shared is useful. Often one part of an emergency is information overload. With too much happening, it can become easy to make decisions based on sensational, rather than rational information. Whether in-house or consulting, it’s up to you to keep the information relevant and make sure things are clear.

This takes me to the end of the issue! The outbreak was contained, and no-one freaked out on our social media channels. I have to say, it’s a lot sexier and clickier (that’s a word now) to have a major blow-up and then write about what could have been done better, but I like this scenario better.

Key takeaways from my experience:

  • the issue in real life was small, in the case of a bigger outbreak, things would have been different
  • the hospital remained open. if it had closed, it would have been a much bigger issue
  • the team I work with is ON! these people know what they’re doing and care about doing it right
  • not everyone always thinks of social channels when dealing with public announcements, particularly public health. Go where the people are folks!
  • ask for help. in public health, people want to help you. Internally, ask your team for approvals and confirmations. Externally, ask people and news channels to share your posts. It’s not a shoe-sale, it’s a hospital, and most people will happily help you get important messages out.
  • scheduling posts is useful as part of an execution, but can’t replace your voice. use it for solid reminders and continue with unscheduled updates and confirmations yourself.
  • you need to build your communications knowing that you might have to turn it off. At any point, if the issue took a turn for the worse, or the province stepped in to insist on taking over comms, I would have had to stop everything and cancel scheduled posts. don’t be scared of that. Plan for it.

That’s how I used scheduled posts during a public health issue. The client was happy overall and we demonstrated how to use social media for public health messages to teams and departments who might not have thought of it before. I’m really proud to have contributed not just to the client’s work, but to the overall health and well-being of people in my city. That doesn’t come up often enough in the marketing world!

This blog is mine. Don’t blame. Don’t copy.

All opinions and posts on this blog are my own and not those of my employer, friends, family or people I might just have met who seem really cool; or even my pets, who have no choice but to agree with me anyway. You can tell these opinions are mine because this is my blog.
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