Engaging with social media – will the NHS’ culture of reluctantly accepting blame take the risk?

There are benefits for companies engaging with social media according to researcher Sarah Wood from the Financial Times, who says the advantages outweigh the odd error. Many companies still feel uncertain about taking on the risks and rewards of social media and I believe the NHS is one.

In July this year, Bank of America wanted to respond to some angry activists’ tweets through social media but their responses were dry and cautious, simply fuelling perceptions that the bank was too impersonal and rigid: “Your tweets seem computer generated. Like you haven’t got a heart and soul,” fumed one angered tweeter.

If a brand broadcasts something that sounds inauthentic, or just silly, it will be engulfed in online negativity. Just last week, Domino’s Pizza was mocked when a member of staff mistook a compliment for a complaint on its Facebook page and apologised for providing an amazing pizza.

Nevertheless, there really are rewards to be gained from building a ‘social business’ – that is, one that helps and encourages employees to speak on behalf of the company in public, on social media, and to interact on internal social platforms. Somehow, I can’t see the communication director of an NHS trust allowing a ward nurse to make an apology on a social media site as official statements normally produced by a trust, have to be approved by the executive team.

However, I believe researchers are increasingly wielding statistics showing that organisations adopting social initiatives bring services to market faster. I would like to believe that NHS employees on internal social networks would be more likely to support their hospital in a crisis, but a culture which reluctantly accepts blame may prevent this action for fear of being criticised.

My understanding is that all statements have to be approved by the communications director on behalf of the trust’s executive team and there are a number of processes in place to prevent staff being able to make a comment – even just to say sorry! This, in my experience, is what most patients and relatives want to hear when there has been a service failing.

Will the ‘NHS digital revolution’ challenge this? In business we hear much of the rhetoric for “being social” so what are the marketing arguments? It has been shown that employees may amplify campaigns by talking about them; if there is a crisis, they can counter misinformation quickly. Sounds as though this could be useful in the NHS.

There appears to be other benefits too, such as creating and sharing, workplace photos on Tumblr or playlists on Spotify, which can remind customers, staff and potential recruits what is special about a company’s culture. Apparently, according to Wood, Adobe uses Instagram to humanise its business software brand through visual storytelling and to tap into employees’ love of photography by inviting them to share photos publicly on the site, using Adobe hashtags. Its “Day in the Life” Instagram initiative on 19th February earlier this year elicited 86 photos and 5,853 comments within 24 hours from across eight offices.

It can be tempting to see these initiatives as fads. But innovation relies on diversity of participants and fast feedback.

Tim Kelsey, NHS England’s director of patients and information, is looking for 100,000 people to use online health services by April 2014 – ready to benefit from the ‘digital revolution’. Surely part of the digital revolution is to empower staff within the NHS.

Getting started on embedding a social approach in the NHS could feel like a logistical nightmare, but a ‘social company’ is one that taps into the energy and expertise of people across the hospital. Put out a call for staff to become involved in a ‘social squad’ and the social superstars will self-select. Use them to ‘crowd source’ your social media guidelines. Invest in training, establish peer-to-peer ‘social clinics’ and be clear about your approvals process.

Arguably, however, the most important guidance senior executives can give is to make it known that a mistake in social media is not the end of the world. Everyone makes mistakes and, despite the furore around Bank of America and Domino’s social media mishaps, audiences are usually extremely forgiving to those who acknowledge their error and react in a human way, rather than push out standard corporate messages.

So if there is a social media mistake, join the conversation and own the #fail. That’s what Domino’s did this week. The company told reporters from Digiday, a digital media and marketing website, that “real human beings make real human mistakes sometimes, and this was one of those times…it happens. We were all, naturally, a little bit red-faced by this – but we’ve already moved on.”

In other words, there is no heinous crime, no social media car crash, just an employee learning on-the-job.

In an age when patients expect brands and businesses they buy from to behave like real people, to be authentic, to have a ‘heart and soul’, then they will also expect the public sector, such as the NHS that has probably one of the finest brands in the world, to turn to its employees to provide the human touch. They will make mistakes. But let’s all be a little more forgiving when they do. I look forward to seeing the NHS engaging in this way. But I hear a knock at the door, of course it’s our friends from the legal profession!

Please note these are the comments of the author they do not represent the view of any organisation that the author is associated with.

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