At the October 2020 Houston Social Media Breakfast, we hosted a special guest, Annie Phalen, who heads up the social media for Houston Methodist Hospital. Not only is the hospital leading medicine, but it is also a leading community voice during this pandemic. Houston Methodist is also a Zoetica client, making this breakfast a family affair.
Annie came from a hospitality background which some might find incongruous with her entry to the medical world. She sees similarities across the two industries, as the primary goal is to serve people and meet their needs. While, of course, there was a learning curve, at its heart her mission remained the same.
It was with this service mindset that she redirected the focus of Houston Methodist’s social media community interaction. Previously, the focus had a competitive landscape. The perspective centered around: “How many followers do we have? How many do they have?”
Many of us can understand chasing that dragon. Rather, Annie wanted to focus on the quality of the content. How was Houston Methodist serving the community? Answering needed questions and becoming a go-to source? What would stop people from swiping past? This became her central focus.
Knowing that this would require a sales pitch to upper management, Annie began with a complete audit of the “entire social media presence and every material” ever created. Armed with data, she then created a strategic vision for where Houston Methodist should be, compared it to the present, and created viable benchmarks.
Content Worth Staying For
Annie insisted on consistently higher quality content including a new video team. Quality over quantity became the norm and while it took time, her efforts established a new expectation of Houston Methodist from readers. While no one could have expected a pandemic, nothing could have primed their audience more.
The audience was respected from the beginning. The use of personas was developed at first with a review of who was actually engaging content at the time. The personas grew out of that naturally. Much the same was the internal relationships. Changes to the voice of an established organization, especially a medical one, are going to unsettle many. Annie worked from where she stood and continued to utilize data to make her case. And with time, both were successful, very much so.
During this time, Annie also transitioned from Digital Marketing which was ad-based (paid marketing) to the content management team which is more aligned style-wise. She works with the blog and non-paid, organic content. It is a highly collaborative team but she feels that all the work and lessons learned from the first team have fed the great work that came out of the last crucial seven months.
Becoming the Calming Voice in a Pandemic Storm
When the pandemic started on the west coast, there was very little notice among the Houston Methodist audience. When it really hit New York hard, however, Annie noticed an uptick in questions.he enlisted the help of a leading pathologist to address the community’s concerns.
Then the coronavirus hit Houston and it hit hard. Even the staff of Houston Methodist was working remotely. A cast of fear fell over the city and a sense of responsibility to create calm was felt deeply by everyone at Houston Methodist. Annie found a great confluence of meeting a community need and creating educational content. She started a series of AMA – “Ask Me Anything” sessions. This allowed the community to ask questions about COVID-19 and get quick answers to calm their fears. It also naturally generated her content ideas for the blog.
The next thing that came up from Annie’s team was the decision to allow video do the story telling. In a series of compelling “Day of the Life” stories, they flagshipped with a devastating yet ultimately uplifting piece following a team in the Infectious Disease Unit, including as they hold the hand (literately & figuratively) of “Grandpa” as he succumbed to COVID-19. The sheer generosity of spirit of the nursing staff speaks far louder than any marketing team ever could and the video is still being shared and receiving comments months later. This series was a terrific success, cementing the value of the video team brought in previously by Annie.
As time passed, these continuing videos have demonstrated that the medical spaces are safe spaces, a newly important message. A series of studies demonstrated that in the wake of coronavirus, too many essential routine and emergent medical procedures were being skipped in fear of the virus. Annie led a campaign to assure the public that returning to the doctor was not only a safe endeavor, it was a necessary one.This was especially visible with recent mammogram posts.
Meeting the Challenge, Showing the Value
Previously in the Houston Methodist corporate culture, the organic content was not seen with the same level of enthusiasm as the paid marketing. After the effectiveness of the COVID messaging, however, that has completely changed. It really demonstrated how patience and quality content addressing an audience need really can turn around numbers and naysayers.
On that front, another central feature to organic messaging was consistent, quality community management. Annie’s team (managed by Zoetica) has a detailed response language sheet that gives a great deal of autonomy for answers. It is Annie’s intention for quick and helpful answers with HIPAA limitations.
During the height of the COVID fear, the tone of inquiries often swung quickly from very positive to very negative, leaving these very real humans to handle them. Maintaining a team focus and an open line of communication was essential to work through this time for all parties from the communications to nursing to our maintenance team and even to the leadership. No one went unscathed. Likely true of most business in 2020. In Houston Methodist’s case, an effort was made to spotlight those real humans.
A distinct communication issue in the medical field are those that fall under HIPAA – Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act. This act limits how and when medical records can be discussed in a public forum, especially when referencing another person. This is where the extensive response protocol comes into play. While all comments get a response, these receive a far more structured response, so as to not violate the privacy of the referenced person.
Along those lines are customer complaints. Addressing unhappy patients and their families, is a unique issue in some ways. While Annie still brings her service mindset here, many times the comments run up across the same HIPAA issues. Again, strict protection protocols are the supercedent while efforts to be as transparent within that stand.
In conclusion, Annie returned to the value of quality benchmarks. Know your numbers. For example, a follower from Bangladesh is not as meaningful as a follower in Houston because who is going to use their services? Start with real, viable benchmarks that move you to the real goals you want and be consistent with your work to reach your goals. Organic success is possible, even without a pandemic.