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Going Viral: How Healthcare Organizations Can Use Emerging Media in Crisis Communications

There has never been a period in our lifetimes where swift, clear communication has been so vital to saving countless lives worldwide. The COVID-19 crisis challenged governments and healthcare organizations everywhere with the need to keep the world’s population up to the minute with rapidly-evolving news and directives for personal and public safety, not just over the initial days, but over months.


It’s thrown into stark relief the life and death difference that a strong crisis communication plan—one that harnesses the power of emerging media—makes in a pandemic. Misinformation or lack of information costs lives, while expert guidance shared widely and explained carefully reduces the burden on hospitals and protects front-line workers and the public as a whole.


In a situation like this, the light-speed spread of news and information on emerging media channels like social media services cuts both ways. Responsible leaders and experts have a wide range of easily-accessible and popular outlets to get cutting-edge details out to the world in minutes. But conspiracy theories, medically unproven “treatments,” and fear-mongering material spreads just as quickly. Healthcare leaders can’t control everything that people share online. But teamed with healthcare communications experts who specialize in emerging media, and armed with a well-prepared crisis communication plan, they can ensure that they’re giving the public the vital information they need in time to save lives.


A Crisis Communication Plan Isn’t Optional


Although the coronavirus crisis has now been raging for months, we’re far from the finish line. And even once there’s a vaccine or treatment, the sobering reality is that this isn’t likely to be the last time we face a global pandemic of this level. Right now, we have the opportunity to look back on the past weeks and months and to begin to analyze the dramatic effects of healthcare communications—the good and the bad—around the world, and the effectiveness of the channels that delivered them.


Even organizations at the forefront of healthcare communication must sometimes adapt or correct their messages. The World Health Organization recently clarified comments about the rates of asymptomatic transmission of COVID, for example, after other experts pointed out that the statement seemed to downplay those risks.


Every healthcare institution or business has the opportunity to reflect: How well were we prepared to get our messages out? How quickly and clearly did we craft those messages? Did we reach the necessary people, and did we reach enough of them? Did we put the right messengers into the right roles? How can we do better?


These aren’t questions that can be answered at the moment that a crisis breaks. They have to be discussed, strategized, and put into a fixed plan for public relations and communications when there’s time for careful planning. Loyola’s Master of Arts in Emerging Media program recognized this as a need especially vital to the healthcare industry when we created the Health Communications certificate.


Emerging Media: Essential Tools for Healthcare Communication

Why emerging media? Because it’s become increasingly important for healthcare professionals to meet people where they are and to use the tools that they already use to engage them and make them partners in their own health and safety. People are overwhelmed not just with information, but with the many ways they can receive it, and many (particularly older or less tech-savvy users) will stick with one or two online outlets. Communications professionals know that they need to be able to tailor the same information to many types of digital platforms in order to reach the most people.


What’s more, people are increasingly using their mobile phones to get information. They’re expecting to interact with that information in a more active, engaged way—learning through games, quizzes, videos, or digital storytelling rather than simply reading. They want one-touch methods for sharing important news with everyone they care about. And they expect direct communication and quick response from even those in the top echelons of government or industry.


All of this means that those working in public relations or communications in the healthcare field are learning that they must include—and be well-versed in—the use of many forms of emerging media if they’re going to succeed at anything as critical as crisis communications. Incorporating those digital channels into strategic plans is non-negotiable in this day and age in order to be prepared to hit the ground running when a situation breaks.


Tips for a Successful Crisis Response Using Emerging Media


Employing emerging media—in particular social media—as a vehicle for healthcare communications during a crisis is much more complex than issuing press releases or giving TV interviews. Every healthcare organization’s plan for public relations should consider:

  • Who is assigned to deliver messages on each channel? It’s important to match the messenger to their strengths. For example, someone used to delivering prepared talking points to newspapers may not be experienced at fielding comments and questions on Twitter.
  • How will the same information be shared in different places? Limited character counts, hashtags, size and format of visuals, tagging, and even word choice can vary among platforms and mean the difference between a message that spreads swiftly and one that stagnates.
  • Where is the audience? Every organization needs to know the people it serves and where to find them online. Gathering this data can’t be done under pressure.
  • When will people be listening? Every emerging media channel has its trends and audience spikes. Not only the timing of information release, but the frequency with which it’s repeated, will be specific to each outlet.
  • How will mentions and rumors be tracked? People will talk, swiftly and immediately, when a crisis breaks. A smart organization will be on alert for those conversations in order to respond, so a crisis plan needs to include both the tools to monitor social media for keywords and phrases and the designated team members to use them.
  • How will the organization deliver responses to questions or criticism in public media spaces? There has to be a balance between vetting and approving any public statements including answers to questions outside the press, and being empowered enough to respond with the speed demanded by users of that emerging media channel.

Is a Health Communication Certificate or Specialization in Your Future?

The need for qualified communications experts in the healthcare field is only growing as people expect more direct interaction with their providers and experts, and as more types of emerging media and platforms that serve them become part of our everyday lives. If you’re considering a graduate certificate or a master’s specialization in Health Communications, reach out to us to request more information on our programs.