The Five Steps of Social Media Grieving (for Hospital Execs)

While many hospital marketers have already accepted and/or embraced the use of social media, there continue to be holdouts in the "C-suite" who struggle to accept social media as a valid strategic tool. Why this reluctance? I have a theory...

By now most of us are familiar with the "five stages of grief" identified by psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I suspect that as modern marketers struggle with the "death" of outdated marketing strategies, the same five stages can be applied to their reluctance to embrace the new medium of social media.

Stage 1: Denial
At first, hospital leadership has a tendency to deny the very fact that social media greatly impacts how people search online for healthcare information. Rather than accept that

  • YouTube comprises 25% of all Google searches
  • Facebook is a valid source for millions of online healthcare searchers
  • Twitter has become an acceptable and trusted form of communication leaders continue to reject the mainstream use of social media.

Examples: "No one uses social media to look for health problems." . . . "Why would anyone look at YouTube for hospitals? It's preposterous!!" . . . "Twitter is only for leaking unverified news stories and facilitating revolutions in the Middle East – not for healthcare!"

Stage 2: Anger
Once they start to see past this denial, the next phase reluctant hospital executives face is extreme anger at the very existence of social media. At this stage, there is a tendency to react with irrational behavior, outrageous litigation and general discontent with the web (as a marketing vehicle) itself.

Examples: "How could someone write all this stuff about my hospital? What right do they have?" . . . "I'm going to stop patients from having any opinion about me online by having them sign this gag order! Then, I'll sue!" . . . "I won't let any of my employees on social media sites -- I'll have our IT department block YouTube and Facebook."

Stage 3: Bargaining
At this stage, reluctant hospital leaders start to see that social media is not a fad, and so they reluctantly begin to bargain to make the (perceived) negative impact less severe. Often they try to compromise the openness of social media by forcing it to act more like traditional marketing.

Examples: "Well, OK, I'll create a YouTube channel, but I am going to turn off all comments." . . . "I'll guess I have to get a Twitter account, but I won't follow anyone and I will rarely post a 'tweet'." . . .  "Maybe I’ll just look over my daughter’s shoulder the next time she’s on Facebook, to see what it’s all about.”

Stage 4: Depression
After attempting to tiptoe their way into social media, reluctant hospital execs then reach a period of deep malaise and sadness. They are gripped by fears that the tide of social media (and user-generated content) will wash away all their expensive branding efforts. Numbness, anger and sadness may also remain.

Examples: "There is no way to respond to blog posts about my hospital -- why should we even bother?" . . . "What's the point of looking for what people say about us on Facebook -- I can't control anything they say." . . . "I long for the good old days when all I had to do was create a few nice billboard and newspaper ads to define my hospital brand."

Stage 5: Acceptance
The last stage encountered by reluctant hospital leaders is acceptance. At this point, the anger and sadness has worn off, and they start to accept that social media is here to stay. Soon, they are on the path to learning how these tools can augment and enhance their existing branding and communication efforts -- and actually bear out positive successes.

Examples: "You know, Facebook really isn't a bad way to increase awareness of my hospital’s foundation." . . . "Actually, my traditional marketing techniques are really not as effective as they once were -- maybe there is something to this social media stuff." . . . "I can't fight it, so I may as well learn how to use social media effectively."

In keeping with Kübler-Ross's original theory, the above steps do not necessarily occur in the order noted above; nor are all steps experienced by all hospital leaders. But I've found that most hospital execs seem to experience at least two of the above stages.

Ask yourself honestly – are you going through any of these stages? If so, don't worry -- and try not to force the process. To quote Wikipedia’s article on the Five Stages of Grieving:

"Don't rely on others saying "you should be over this by now"; "you're taking too long", or, "you haven't waited long enough". The process is highly personal and should not be rushed, nor lengthened, on the basis of another's imposed timeframe or opinion. One should merely be aware that the stages will be worked through and the ultimate stage of "Acceptance" will be reached."

Chris Boyer is a member of the Advisory Board for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media. He also will be presenting at our third annual Social Media Summit Oct. 17-19 in Rochester, Minn. See this post for details on how to register.

Choose a message to share 
You can't fight it, so I may as well learn how to use social media effectively.
Why do holdouts in the C-suite struggle to accept social media as a valid strategic tool?
Let's face it. Twitter has become an acceptable and trusted form of healthcare communication.

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