Social Media in a Crisis – Scott & White and the Fort Hood shootings

Steven Widmann is the Director of Web Services at Scott & White Healthcare in Temple, Texas. I met Steven at the Greystone conference a few weeks ago, where a recurring theme was Social Media and it’s implications for Hospitals.

As Steven flew back to Texas on November 5, events were unfolding that would bring these implications home in a very direct way.

Scott and White is one of the hospitals which provide services to Fort Hood, and on that day 10 victims of the shooting attack were sent to their Emergency Department. Steve had recently been given approval to set up Social Media sites for the hospital, and now they were facing a situation that required using all available communications tools.

What followed was a textbook case on using Social Media for crisis communications.

Before the first shooting victim arrived, they posted this update to the Scott and White  Twitter account:

SW_TW_1

The next update sent followers to the Scott and White homepage for details and official statements:

SW_TW_2

This was followed by a continuous string of updates that included information on Emergency Room access, Hospital operation status, re-tweets from the Red Cross, dialog with local reporters and other resources for visitors.  In addition to Twitter, Scott and White used a Blog and YouTube to keep everyone informed.

I asked Steve Widmann about the experience:

Q: The Scott & White social media presence is fairly new – first blog post on 9/11, first Tweet on August 21, but your use of these tools during the Fort Hood crisis was excellent, a textbook case. Did you have a crisis plan in place?

Steven Widmann: While we do have a system-wide crisis plan in place we have not integrated our social media use into it just yet.  It was only recently that we received approval from leadership to utilize social media within our marketing department.  We’ve been discussing implementing social media for over a year now, but had received a lot of push-back.  Fortunately members of my team have been very active in promoting the use social media and have been meeting with our PR department for many months while we were working on getting approval.  We plan to formalize a written plan soon once we complete an internal debriefing.

What was the the response from local media and/or general public to your social media updates?

We received a lot of support and gratitude from the local media and the general public.  We believe, as others do, that the web will ultimately become a ‘source of truth’ to receive current updates and information during a crisis.

Did you see an increase in Twitter followers, views on YouTube and/or traffic to your Blog?

Twitter followers increased 78% in three days.  Our hospital was also listed on the front page of Twitter as a ‘trending topic’.   Our YouTube channel ranked 79’th most viewed non-profit channel for the week.

Can you describe the process for posting updates during a crisis?

The process was the same as it would be for traditional media. Our Director of PR was in our command center with other crisis team members.  When information needed to be updated, web team members received either an email or phone call from the command center and an update was immediately made, typically with a tweet followed by detailed information on our homepage. We also time and date stamped all of our updates so a user would know how current the post was.

What has been the reaction from your executive office to this experience?

They have been very pleased with the response of all staff members involved in working on this tragedy.  No one department has been singled out as it truly was a team effort.  My hope is to provide a short presentation to leadership in the next 30 days to fully highlight the marketing department’s effort and specifically our use of social media.  As I mentioned before there has been a lot of push-back on using social media in the past.  I believe most of it was because leadership was not familiar with it and how it can benefit our hospital in communications with the community. I believe the proof is in the pudding now.

What would you do differently next time?

We’ve been discussing this over the past week.  First  we believe we need to have a written plan.  Second I’m asking that Web Services becomes part of the Crisis team and participate in the drills each year.  One item that was brought up by the PR team was that during drills, they did not actually use their equipment as they would during a crisis.  During the Fort Hood incident they found that they had limited connectivity in the command center.  This included a wireless internet connection and bad cell phone reception. If this had been tested during the drills they would not have run into this problem during a real crisis.  It slowed thing down a little.

We also found that the Web Services team really needs to have an additional person in the command center to be able to relay information to the web team for updates.  The PR staff is extremely busy and is unable to respond quickly to email or phone requests.  Having a person who is connected to the Web Team in the command center would have really helped.

We have also been looking at using a tool like Yammer for internal communications too. We were testing it early in the year but ran into some issues and concerns by Legal.  I believe they are legitimate concerns, but we need to educate our people better to alleviate these concerns.  With this recent event I believe we can get a lot more buy-in since internal communications would be better served with a tool like Yammer.

Final thoughts…I’m finding the use of social media is really no different than what crisis communications have been in years past.  Only the tools have changed.  With social media tools we have the capability to get information out quicker and to a larger audience.  Ultimately it’s all about communication.  Having social media tools and understanding how they work will allow hospitals to create that ‘source of truth’ that will better serve the community. Unlike some others, I believe there is a difference in using social media  between businesses and healthcare organizations. Because of the HIPAA laws we have to be a lot more careful on the information we release so we don’t infringe on our patient’s privacy.  Only healthcare organizations have this type of limitation.

As long as hospitals already have a good crisis communication plan in place there is no reason why they need to reinvent the wheel and do anything different when using social media other than having the resources to make the updates.  Having a great staff who understands how the tool works also makes a big difference.  No doubt the technology will continue to change and improve down the road.  Keeping up with  technology is paramount in using the tools when needed.   What won’t change is having a good crisis communication plan in place that is able to utilize the tools when needed.

What made us successful this time? It’s having a team pulling together during a crisis.  We were able to work together in a crisis because we actively practice working together day to day on the editorial message of S&W. We discuss the cross-pollination of social media and our web presence daily.  We’re not all directly involved with social media, but we all understand it and recognize what belongs on the blog vs. the homepage vs. Twitter, vs. YouTube and any other tools we chose to use.  It’s a team effort even though everyone works on their portion of things independently.

_____________

Steven – Thank you for sharing your thoughts with our readers. While I hope no hospital has to experience the situation Scott and White had to handle,  your use of social media is an example we can all follow.

1. The Scott & White social media presence is fairly new – first blog post on 9/11, first Tweet on August 21, but your use of these tools during the Fort Hood crisis was excellent, a textbook case. Did you have a crisis plan in place?
Ed-  While we do have a system-wide crisis plan in placr we have not integrated our social media use into it just yet.  It was only recently that we received approval from leadership to utilize social media within our marketing department.  We’ve been discussing implementing social media for over a year now, but had received a lot of push-back.  Fortunately members of my team have been very active in promoting the use social media and have been meeting with our PR department for many months while we were working on getting approval.  We plan to formalize a written plan soon once we complete an internal debriefing.
2.What was the the response from local media and/or general public to your social media updates? We received a lot of support and gratitude from the local media and the general public.  We believe, as others do, that the web will ultimately become a ‘source of truth’ to receive current updates and information during a crisis.
3. Did you see an increase in Twitter followers, views on YouTube and/or traffic to your Blog? Twitter followers increased 78% in three days.  Our hospital was also listed on the front page of Twitter as a ‘trending topic’.   Our YouTube channel ranked 79’th most viewed non-profit channel for the week.
4. Can you describe the process for posting updates during a crisis? (Approval path, internal communications process, etc.) The process was the same as it would be for traditional media. Our Director of PR was in our command center with other crisis team members.  When information needed to be updated, web team members received either an email or phone call from the command center and an update was immediately made, typically with a tweet followed by detailed information on our homepage. We also time and date stamped all of our updates so a user would know how current the post was.
5. What has been the reaction from your executive office to this experience? They have been very pleased with the response of all staff members involved in working on this tragedy.  No one department has been singled out as it truly was a team effort.  My hope is to provide a short presentation to leadership in the next 30 days to fully highlight the marketing department’s effort and specifically our use of social media.  As I mentioned before there has been a lot of push-back on using social media in the past.  I believe most of it was because leadership was not familiar with it and how it can benefit our hospital in communications with the community. I believe the proof is in the pudding now.
6. What would you do differently next time? We’ve been discussing this over the past week.  First  we believe we need to have a written plan.  Second I’m asking that Web Services becomes part of the Crisis team and participate in the drills each year.  One item that was brought up by the PR team was that during drills, they did not actually use their equipment as they would during a crisis.  During the Fort Hood incident they found that they had limited connectivity in the command center.  This included a wireless internet connection and bad cell phone reception. If this had been tested during the drills they would not have run into this problem during a real crisis.  It slowed thing down a little.
We also found that the Web Services team really needs to have an additional person in the command center to be able to relay information to the web team for updates.  The PR staff is extremely busy and is unable to respond quickly to email or phone requests.  Having a person who is connected to the Web Team in the command center would have really helped.
We have also been looking at using a tool like Yammer for internal communications too. We were testing it early in the year but ran into some issues and concerns by Legal.  I believe they are legitimate concerns, but we need to educate our people better to alleviate these concerns.  With this recent event I believe we can get a lot more buy-in since internal communications would be better served with a tool like Yammer.
Final thoughts…I’m finding the use of social media is really no different than what crisis communications have been in years past.  Only the tools have changed.  With social media tools we have the capability to get information out quicker and to a larger audience.  Ultimately it’s all about communication.  Having social media tools and understanding how they work will allow hospitals to create that ‘source of truth’ that will better serve the community. Unlike some others, I believe there is a difference in using social media  between businesses and healthcare organizations. Because of the HIPAA laws we have to be a lot more careful on the information we release so we don’t infringe on our patient’s privacy.  Only healthcare organizations have this type of limitation.
As long as hospitals already have a good crisis communication plan in place there is no reason why they need to reinvent the wheel and do anything different when using social media other than having the resources to make the updates.  Having a great staff who understands how the tool works also makes a big difference.  No doubt the technology will continue to change and improve down the road.  Keeping up with  technology is paramount in using the tools when needed.   What won’t change is having a good crisis communication plan in place that is able to utilize the tools when needed.
What made us successful this time? It’s having a team pulling together during a crisis.  We were able to work together in a crisis because we actively practice working together day to day on the editorial message of S&W. We discuss the cross-pollination of social media and our web presence daily.  We’re not all directly involved with social media, but we all understand it and recognize what belongs on the blog vs. the homepage vs. Twitter, vs. YouTube and any other tools we chose to use.  It’s a team effort even though everyone works on their portion of things independently.