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How health systems can lead with content and social media during the COVID-19 crisis

Social media gives healthcare marketers a chance to inform, lead and engage their audience in their mission.

Times have changed. Quickly. People, those remarkable creatures of habit, have had their lives turned upside down. While we think we might be getting used to this “new normal” as it’s been called (quite exhaustingly), that doesn’t mean those of us working with content and social media should march on, same as it ever was. The COVID-19 crisis is all encompassing so healthcare marketers must change their plans. In fact, as marketers are shifting their plans and messages, audiences are already shifting the way they perceive those messages. According to a (subscription-based) report published on April 20, 2020 by Gartner, consumers are already developing mixed feelings and fatigue about the volume and tone of virus-related information.

To maintain that authentic human connection that is so vital to successfully engaging your audiences on social media, you must always be mindful of the current situation your audience is facing. If people feel or seek something different than what you would normally offer, you must acknowledge that.

To do that, you will very likely need to reassess your strategic approach to your content and social media management. Yes, continue to develop new ideas to serve and engage your audience. And, make sure those ideas are strategically aligned with what your audience needs now (understanding, reassurance, confidence) and your organization’s goals (improving the health of the communities you serve in the best of times, keeping people safe and informed about how they can continue to seek your services and manage their health in the most difficult of times). The content you may have had planned won’t work when people are looking for specific information about COVID-19, and your health system or hospital’s response and advice for it.

For healthcare marketers, that means there’s an opportunity to lead.

Five strategies to guide your content and social media activity

1. Shift your tone to engage with compassion, empathy and motivation.

As my colleague Sue Spaight noted in her excellent article detailing the best ways to communicate with audiences right now, healthcare marketers need to provide calming and reassuring content.

As you’re planning content, stop and ask yourself if it meets what your audience seeks. If your content provides entertainment, escape and frivolity when the audience seeks advice, answers and details about what you’re doing for them in their time of need, you are not providing the empathy they require. It means your content is off tone. You may have to change your plans to meet current consumer expectations and provide greater compassion for what they are experiencing and need from you.

When we’re adjusting our content plans to better communicate based on what people are looking for now, we should also shift our tone to engage with our audiences in a way that appreciates the mindset they have right now. Lead with the compassion many people so desperately seek. Let them know they are heard. For example, don’t just lecture about social/physical distancing or safe at home policies. Explain why this is important and offer tangible benefits. Empathize with your audiences by understanding their perspective and challenges. Recognizing the disruptions people face in their lives can build a more personal connection, but don’t pander. Audiences are savvy.

There is also an opportunity to lead by adding a motivational spirit to your content and tone. People need to believe messages from healthcare leadership. We need people to trust your message so they take action to protect the public health. Empathize and offer a motivational tone through encouraging calls to action so people feel that “in this together” spirit and join you in helping to make a difference. Our actions impact all of us. If you help people understand that, they’ll be more likely to receive your message positively.

2. Provide leadership from the top.

There’s no doubting the fact that information is coming at us like a firehose right now. As a country, we are facing incredible challenges delivering accurate information from a unified voice that addresses fact, not conjecture, advice, not opinion, and leadership, not uncertainty. The opportunity for health systems could not be clearer as you search for ways to help your constituents. Lead. Clearly and positively. Lead with facts to remove any doubt as to the veracity of your message. That message should be delivered from your team’s natural leader. Whether it’s the CEO, President, Chief Medical Officer, Chief of Nursing or another respected and compassionate leader, work with them to deliver your organization’s message to educate your audience about what they should be doing and what you are doing. Your social media platforms are powerful opportunities to inform and engage your audience. People are feeling overwhelmed by content and messages so you need to focus on providing the essential information they need. Turning the spotlight on your leadership provides the authority your message needs when it’s most needed. While your care teams are working night and day to help all of us, your work can deliver succinct and consistent messages to those who rely on your services.

Consider working with your technology teams and leadership to develop the following approaches:

  • Host a Virtual Town Hall, providing updates for all who can join and accepting questions from the audience, even about the most mundane things people face, like how to sanitize groceries. We are all confused about so much. Help your audience by providing accurate information from a compassionate voice of authority.

Medical College of Wisconsin web example

The Medical College of Wisconsin has been providing regular updates that are open to the public and promoted via social media.

  • Provide regular video updates. These can be shot on a smartphone or with a simple video camera to offer direct-from-leadership information straight to your social media feeds. You can plan to do these as Facebook or Instagram Live events that you schedule and promote for your audience ahead of time. Or, you can provide simple videos of leadership sharing updates in a pre-recorded video. We have also seen leaders from specific practice areas within health systems letting their audiences know they are still up and running so people feel calm and confident they can get the care they need when they most need it, like this video from Core Health client, Valley Health System. It demonstrates an effective way to build confidence by informing audiences about ongoing services.
Thedacare video example

Core Health client ThedaCare provided a video from its President and CEO in March.

3. Detail your crisis response: update your audience about what you are doing and what they need to do.

Sharing regular information about your response will provide greater transparency and education while removing question and doubt from the minds of your audiences. Tell people what you’re doing, the steps you’re taking to keep them safe and, even more importantly, what they should be doing themselves. According to recently published research from Gartner (subscription based), one of the primary expectations consumers have today is to know what companies are doing to keep them safe.

It might not feel like it, but we’re still in the beginning stages of this crisis, so providing simple and clear content can help calm and reassure your audience while building trust and equity in your brand. Detail the steps you’re taking. Help them understand what they should do. Begin celebrating success when it comes.

Some content opportunities here include:

  • Promote access - If you’ve created a hotline, landing page or some other way for your constituents to access care, use paid social media campaigns to promote it. Regularly.
  • Educate about the virus - One month ago, it was vital for people to understand the symptoms of COVID-19 and how to effectively wash our hands. Today, hopefully, more of us understand what to look for and what to do. With that in mind, It’s still vital to keep people informed about the impact COVID-19 has on us. Consider creating content that informs people about the incubation period of this virus, how to effectively make or wear masks or anything else that helps people. As I said at the start of this article, the news is changing quickly. So must the ways we inform and educate.
  • Define stay at home and social/physical distancing - We know humans need to hear a message many times before it’s fully understood. We also know the cities and states that have adopted early social distancing actions have helped to flatten the curve in their communities at a more impactful rate than in areas where they have not. Create content that reinforces the message of staying at home and just what social distancing means, especially as orders are being extended or challenged and people need to be convinced of what's right. It’s not a scare tactic, it’s an opportunity to lead, and make sure your audiences understand we’re all in this together and what we should do about it. Data is showing us we must maintain social distancing to “box in” COVID-19. This provides another opportunity to offer compassionate leadership, with a motivational call-to-action encouraging people to join you in what we need to do, together. It mattered when this began and it still matters today.
Thedacare social distancing social example

This is a screenshot from a video we made for Core Health client ThedaCare to begin first informing people about the power of social distancing.

Thedacare stay safe stay home social example

We created this follow-up post after several weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. The message was demonstrative and motivational just when the fatigue of a full month of “safer at home” recommendations began to set in. Because of the effective message and the simple visual, it was shared 132 times, playing a crucial role in delivering ThedaCare’s messaging throughout its community.

  • Maintain cautious positivity - While it’s important that people understand the reality of the situation, it’s not all doom and gloom. Your team is working around the clock to serve your community, as it would through any crisis. One of the more positive and well received things we’ve seen is content that details how many people have been treated and sent home safely on a given day. Share information about recoveries, including stats, photos and videos to help people keep hope alive and to recognize all you’re doing for your community. Optimism is important, but be mindful of the fact that customers are on high alert for those pandering to emotions.
Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin COVID-19 social example

Milwaukee-based Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin is one of the many health systems sharing positive results on social media.

Aurora Health Care COVID-19 patient celebration social example

This extraordinary video from Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee is a full-on celebration.

  • Listen and engage - If you haven’t already stepped up your social listening and engagement efforts, now is the time. We have known for years that audiences build stronger affinity with brands when those brands engage with them quickly and respectfully on social media. Even the smallest points of interaction with your audiences matter. When people so clearly need to feel confidence in their health systems, take the time to engage with everyone (ok, maybe not the trolls) who engages with your content or asks questions on social media. You can also give your leadership confidence that your team knows what those in your community are saying at all times. Create reports so you can inform your team about what people are saying and the questions they have. Be ready to engage with your audience, perhaps more actively than you have in the past, and be mindful of the shift in tone you need right now. It may be useful to create a matrix of messaging and actions so your social media managers know how to respond to different types of comments, messages or questions. The bottom line is that you should be there for people, and be sympathetic to their needs.

4. Develop an appreciation program, enabling participation by the community and your staff

All over the world, we’re seeing people find unique ways to offer their appreciation for nurses, doctors and staff at health systems and hospitals. The opportunity healthcare marketers have is to help people corral that, to give it meaning for their community. Most of us are searching for anything we can do to help. While we can’t provide the help that is truly needed, we want to do something. That’s why we’re seeing people take up sidewalk chalk drawings outside of their homes, hanging children’s drawings in their windows, using lawn signs to announce their support, even programs that provide digital message boards for people to post their gratitude like our client ThedaCare is doing with its KudoBoard initiative. If you build a program to help your audience recognize and celebrate healthcare workers, you help give them the opportunity to prove to your staff we all see and recognize their contributions. Create designed templates to gather and share those images around a common campaign theme to give legs to the ideas and give people the opportunity to do anything they can when many feel the pull to contribute.

While many of these things begin organically among the public, healthcare marketers also have an opportunity to corral and initiate activity on behalf of their organization to give meaning to the random acts of support people want to provide. Stay aware of what people in your community are posting on social media and share user-generated content when appropriate. Give people a reason to take action.

5. Show what’s happening at your clinics and hospitals

One of the most effective healthcare social media tactics we’ve seen over the last month is the in-the-moment, authentic photography of caregivers working hard to keep us safe and treat those in need. Grab your smartphone and get photos or videos of nurses gearing up, scrubbing in and getting ready to serve together. Take advantage of any way you can focus on your caregivers and staff on the front lines demonstrating the courage necessary to keep your audiences safe and healthy.

Aurora Health Care COVID-19 staff social example

This video from Aurora Health Care shows teams throughout their system telling people “we’re all in this together” in different languages, including sign.

This activity rallies our support around those giving so much to help. Especially when misinformation threatens to derail the good being done. It can motivate (that word again) all of our communities when we show the proof of how hard people are working. Consider these types of posts as a way to support your caregivers and staff and provide starters for appreciation programs.

In conclusion: A proactive plan gives your team time to react

In any time of crisis, we’re truly all in it together. Especially when we’re facing the first global pandemic in a century. When we’re confused, unsure of what to do and not even sure what information to trust, health systems can provide assertive leadership for their audiences. The opportunity lies in gathering your efforts strategically around how you can best help people. Providing a clear and flexible plan will help social media, content and communications teams earn their seat(s) at the table, clearing obstacles that might be in the way of taking decisive action and delivering greater value for leadership. So, if you haven’t already, take the time to reassess your activity and adjust your plans. That could be as simple as a redefined interim content strategy and an outline of new supporting tactics based on the points detailed throughout this article.

Remember, just because it feels like a good idea, doesn’t mean it’s the right idea. For example, Gartner’s research (linked to earlier in this article) shows that “branded content with tips and advice about working home, homeschooling kids, cooking and otherwise keeping busy by engaging in self-care has proliferated across channels. But from the consumer perspective, this content is least likely to resonate, either via email or social media”.

Just about everything we’re doing as professional communicators today is reactive. Even when we don’t know what’s coming next, detailing an agile and flexible strategy to chart our course helps us be proactive enough to create content that helps those who need us the most. Sometimes, it’s ok to say “no, that’s not right.” Our audiences will appreciate it all the more if we work on getting it right for them, sparing them a few extra pieces of superfluous content. If you do it now, you’ll be able to look back on this time and show your leadership that the steps you took made a difference.


Colin Deval is the Director of Communications Strategy at Core Health, Core Creative’s specialized healthcare marketing practice.

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