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Hospital Blogs Can Help During Times of Controversy

Marianne Aiello, for HealthLeaders Media, September 28, 2009

Nick Jacobs, president and CEO of Windber (PA) Medical Center, says he has always "lived on the edge" because the view is better from there, but he also finds life a lot more challenging when he's "driving a little bit ahead of my headlights."

However, in this instance, Jacobs isn't referring to his hospital's latest expansion effort or its trial vaccination program—he's talking about blogging.

While many hospitals still tend to avoid starting a blog for fear of sparking bad publicity, Jacobs has found in many cases that the opposite is true. When used appropriately, blogs can be an effective means of damage control for hospitals.

Jacobs, who was one of the first hospital CEO bloggers on the scene when he started "Nick's Blog" in 2005, says he has had a lot of experience with smoothing over controversial issues with the help of his blog. Last summer, when rumors of a split with Windber's then-affiliate Conemaugh Health System swirled, Jacobs helped quell patient and employee fears through a series of blog posts.

"The blog became the total source of very carefully worded encouragement throughout the process," Jacobs says. "In fact, at one point we had more readers from one of our sister hospitals coming to our Web site than we did from our own."

Although Jacobs couldn't reveal intricacies of the behind the scenes deal at the time, he says his blog readers were put at ease simply because he addressed the subject. "It helped to keep them engaged, and, most importantly, it helped to calm the nerves of those individuals who perceived that they were at risk," he says.

A blog can be a powerful way to get a hospital's message out to the public, says Mark Whitman, vice president of digital marketing at Ohio-based brand consulting firm Northlich. "A big advantage of blogs is that information can be shared quickly among all stakeholders," he says. "Quick response and sharing of information can help stop misinformation and rumors that can be very damaging during times of crisis."

The far reach of "Nick's Blog" (on Google, it is among the first 10 links for search terms, "nick's blog," and "hospital blog") has had a positive effect on Windber Medical Center, says Jacobs, who also blogs for Hospital Impact. Jacobs says "Nick's Blog" has around 100,000 regular readers, but he estimates that many more have read his posts because of local and national press coverage.

"We have patients coming to us from California, Virginia, New York, Iowa, and Canada for some of our vaccine trials, and 700,000-plus readers know that there is a Windber Medical Center," he says. The transparency that the blog provides also helps recruit new physicians and employees, as well as spreads the hospital's philosophy of patient-centered care, says Jacobs.

Who should blog

If a hospital is considering starting its own blog, Jacobs says that the caliber of the person doing the blogging is more important than that person's title. Each hospital must decide for itself if it wants a creative risk-taker or a conservative operations-based person at the keyboard.

Jacobs' views on which personality type would make for a better blogger are clear. "Remember, the outside of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the side that is constantly dealing with the ocean waves, is the side where everything is alive," he says. "The back side, the calm bay side is dead."

Whitman says it is most important for a hospital blog to stick to one blogger so that the person can develop a trusting relationship with the audience. Then, when a controversy hits the hospital, "that author should stick to the facts and blogging policies that should be predefined in a crisis communication plan," he says. "All posts should be reviewed by [the hospital's] public relations experts before release."

To gain the audience's trust, a hospital must start its blog before a crisis hits, Whitman says. If a hospital blogger can build a community of stakeholders while waters are calm, that community will be an asset when the waves roll in.

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