When you run a hospital system with 30,000 employees, you have a wealth of stories to share—and the possibility for social media liability that must make attorneys wake up in cold sweats.
But Advocate Health Care has decided to embrace social media, tearing down internal firewalls last week and allowing staff to access Facebook from their desktops.
The Oak Brook, Ill., company—which comprises 12 hospitals and 250 care sites—is urging employees to link to its Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channel accounts, and is providing training to keep problems from emerging.
Dovetailing this, Advocate communicators are crowd-sourcing by asking for story ideas they can follow up on through a website called "Inspiring medicine. Changing lives."
The results have already been a success, Advocate says.
"We have doubled our Facebook fans in just a few days since our launch," the company tweeted Tuesday. "AWESOME! Thanks Advocate FB Followers!"
"The stories that people tell and share are amazing," says Stephanie Johnson, director of public affairs, "and having our social media platforms gives them the perfect platform to share stories with others."
Hospitals are places of inherent drama, where patients are healed and lives are saved thanks to a dedicated staff. Yet medicine makes for a conservative communications culture because of the need to respect patients' privacy.
Advocate isn't turning over its corporate voice to the tweeting masses. The communications staff will remain in charge of telling stories about patients or staff.
Still, because of the new openness, employees are undergoing internal training, and they are tested in a questionnaire asking whether particular messages would be appropriate or inappropriate.
The "Inspiring medicine" campaign directs internal ideas to communications staffers, who vet them and decide whether to feature them in individual hospitals' newsletters, corporate videos or employee recognition events.
Hard to monitor all that's going on
Because Advocate is the largest integrated health system in the Midwest, it can be hard to track what its various hospitals and clinics are up to. Communications staff can't know everything that's going on.
But the "Inspiring medicine" site has opened up new lines of communication.
"This way, we're cross-sharing stories and information, and it really is a lot of fun," Johnson says. "We determine which venue makes the most sense, and it still keeps a process so stuff can't just get out there about patients."
The campaign has turned up stories like that of a doctor who is a marathoner and uses his own running to inspire patients to practice healthier lifestyles. The hospital has also featured a doctor who volunteered in Haiti. The possibilities for further stories are hinted at by the video on its channel, such as one titled "Robots are Revolutionizing Women's Surgery."
The company edged into social media gradually, opening the YouTube channel and soft-launching its Facebook early this year before the public opening last week. But it was looking for a way to gather additional stories and further engage staff without turning doctors loose to tweet about kidney stones and orderlies to post items about emptying bedpans.
Advocate emailed its staff postcards and has stirred up interest on site.
"There is going to be a process, and we are definitely having social media ambassadors at all the various sites that will be hosting events to get all of the associates involved," Johnson says.
Selling the plan to the bosses
In talking with the corporate bosses, the communications staff was able to point to the messaging it had done in the past year—and the worldwide importance of social media.
The company used social media to raise money for earthquake victims in Haiti, and it communicated with employees via Twitter during and after a blizzard, telling them what code the hospital was in, whether to show up to work and which lots had been cleared for parking.
"That us to be able to showcase to leaders how this worked without them just seeing the liability," Johnson says.
The executives understood that organizations will be telling their stories through social media in the future, and it was best to have employees trained and engaged.
"Our very senior leaders were supportive and understanding that this is just the way the country is going in terms of telling stories," Johnson says.