September 27, 2018

When, Whether and How to Join the Social Conversation

By Monique Costa

Monique Tremblay and Tom Hardej will present "When, Whether and How to Join the Social Conversation: The Debate Around Thoughts and Prayers" at the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network 2018 Annual Conference. To learn more from Monique and Tom and other expert speakers, please join us!

By: Monique Tremblay and Tom Hardej, Massachusetts General Hospital

Whether you’re a team of one or considering feedback from across your organization, there are certain questions to ask—explicitly or not—before you post content on your social media channels.

  • Is this post interesting and relevant to our audience?
  • Does it provide an entry point for meaningful engagement?
  • Does it fit into our social media strategy?
  • Does it fit our overall mission?

The majority of posts don’t require extra scrutiny. But even with an easy and overwhelming “yes” to all of these questions, your posts are not immune to controversy. What do you do when a post is relevant, ripe for engagement and well within your strategy and brand mission, but doesn’t go quite as you planned? This happened this past spring when MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) posted about Lyme disease, and we had to make a quick decision on how to respond to a vocal minority refuting our claims. MGHfC is a sub-brand of Massachusetts General Hospital and has a separate Facebook account.

A Simple Q&A

On May 25, 2018, MGHfC posted an educational Q&A interviewing two pediatric infectious disease physicians created as a seasonal resource for parents whose children may be bitten by a tick during the summer months on its Facebook page. The post seemed particularly relevant because in Massachusetts and surrounding areas, there was an increase in tick prevalence. The content included first aid tips, information on lab testing, and treatment options.

This post adhered to our overall social media strategy, was vetted by physicians, deemed educational by our social media team, and by all counts seemed like a positive and beneficial piece of content to share. It also supported our clinical mission by providing helpful content for parents.

The Controversy

At first, the post received generally positive engagement, with 188 reactions, 35 shares, 48 comments and a post reach of 5,282, which is positive engagement for this page (total Facebook page likes are 5,758 as of 9/18/18). But within minutes, a vocal minority chimed in to challenge the information provided by our physicians. Commenters cited other reputable sources like and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) that they believed provided more accurate information. Negative and impassioned comments began to appear:

“Shame on you and shame on Mass General for allowing garbage like this to be written and publicized. My heart breaks for the people who will suffer immensely at your hands.”

“This information is so inaccurate it’s mind boggling. You are putting people’s children at risk by putting out this kind of misinformation.”

The Problem for Mass General

The question then was: what should we do? The commenters were engaged in conversation among themselves, but they were refuting our physicians’ and our institutional claims. Should we chime in to challenge what we believed to be incorrect information? Would that fan the fire? Or should we ignore it and allow the vocal minority to control the conversation around our content?

Because conversations on social media move so quickly, we knew this was an urgent situation. We consulted the important stakeholders, including Infectious Disease clinical leadership, content leaders, our Public Affairs team and marketing leaders. Ultimately, we narrowed our approach to three options:

  1. Respond: This wasn’t just any Facebook post. This was a post that tied closely to our credibility and clinical expertise, and our physician colleagues were ready to stand by our research and refuted the claims the commenters were providing.
  2. Ignore: We know from experience that commenters eventually tire themselves out and move on. And we could always hide any comments that spread misinformation.
  3. Delete the Post: We don’t often come to this decision, but if comments are inappropriate per our internal guidelines, this could be an option.

Our Course of Action

We carefully discussed the pros and cons of each option. At first, preparing a response felt like the right decision. Joining the conversation to refute claims we believed to be untrue was appealing. But as social media marketers, we know well that while you can control what you put out into the world, you cannot control how people react to it.

There was a worry that contradicting the commenters might cause them to get angrier, no matter how thoughtful we were with our tone and message. Engaging in the conversation might create an even larger, uncontrolled, and perhaps misleading or confusing debate for parents.

But we also didn’t want to completely invalidate the commenters. They believe what they believe strongly, and where better to have a debate about treatment options than on a hospital social media channel? They cited evidence they believed to be true, and no one acted inappropriately. Deleting the post or the comments wasn't within the scope of our social media strategy.

Ultimately, we decided to ignore the comments. The physicians agreed with our decision, and we carefully monitored the post in case anything escalated. But, in fact, the conversation died down quickly.

Whether or not to chime in to a conversation like this requires careful consideration. And while we didn’t act in this scenario, it doesn’t mean that in other cases engagement wouldn’t be the right decision. This is an example of one of the case studies that the Mass General social team will be discussing at the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network conference this year. From natural disasters, to pop culture moments, to national tragedies, there is no shortage of moments that spark conversation on social media, with celebrities, politicians and everyday citizens offering their opinions, thoughts, and prayers.

We’ll be discussing our take on when it’s okay for a hospital or health care organization to chime in to conversations like these and examples of when we have and have not posted, shared and commented. We look forward to sharing more and hearing from you at this year’s conference!

Tom Hardej is the Sr. Marketing Manager for Digital Content at Massachusetts General Hospital. Tom began his career as a book editor. Previously he worked at a content marketing agency creating content and editorial strategies for clients from diverse industries (including hospitals, health care, insurance, and pharmaceuticals).

Monique Tremblay is a digital marketer with Massachusetts General Hospital with more than five years of experience in the health care industry. She enjoys social media strategy and the world of digital marketing.

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Tags: Annual Conference, crisis, Strategy, Tactics & Best Practices

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