Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hospital Lessons Part II

A little over four years ago, I wrote an article for PRSA’s PR Tactics on how the hospital where my father spent his final days shaped its own reputation for the worse. The article here was called Lessons from a Father's Final Hospital Stay. The hospital damaged its own reputation, I maintained, not because of inadequate PR tactics but rather through the behaviors and actions of hospital staff. I argued that reputations are shaped through first-hand experience, one person at a time.

The article I wrote drew quite a bit of attention. I received several requests from across the country to reprint the piece in hospital newsletters as a reminder of how individual patient care can have a bearing on everyone associated with the organization.

Fast-forward to 2011. We can call this blog post Hospital Lessons Part II.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve become familiar with a few horror stories coming out of a couple of hospitals. One involves a family member who had appendix surgery, and the other involves a 20-year old Type I diabetic who was admitted to another hospital due to complications.

I will just list some instances here where the hospitals did themselve no favors:

• Nurses had a playful syringe fight (akin to a water gun fight) with saline solution in my family member’s room.
• Nurses snuck into my family member’s room for the sole purpose of gossiping about other nurses, totally ignoring my family member.
• When my family had questions for one nurse about timing and protocols for discharge, he said he did not want to be “put in the middle.”
• When my family had questions for doctors, they directed the family to the nursing staff. When the family approached the nursing staff, they were directed to the doctors.
• The hospital’s Web site said the primary care doctor should be involved in discharge decisions. When the family talked to the primary care doctor that was news to him.
• Doctors and nurses, who clearly knew my family member was in a fog thanks to drugs and complications from a serious infection communicated with him tersely and verbally on important instructions and information to be used by the family to make important decisions. Needless to say, my family member didn’t remember even seeing certain doctors, let alone the information they “passed along.”
• Because of his condition, my family member was not able to eat solid food for a time. That didn’t stop the hospital from delivering him a tray of solid hospital food three times a day.
• The diabetic child of one of my friends was admitted to a hospital because her sugar levels had spiked to dangerous levels. That hospital made sure to deliver sugar-laden trays of food to her on a regular basis.

In an automotive manufacturing plant, this might be diagnosed as a quality-control problem. In a hospital, where human lives and human quality-of-life issues are at stake, these things are inexcusable. What usually makes matters worse is the blank stare - and quite often the pushback - you get from hospital staff when you point out discrepancies in care, even if all you are doing is asking questions to obtain better understanding.

I said it four years ago, and apparently it is worth repeating. PR can only do so much. At some point, leadership in organizations must come to the realization that their behaviors have a major impact on their reputations.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Crowdsourcing and PR Implications

“Crowdsourcing” is yet another one of those terms that results from taking a timeless practice and combining it with new technological capabilities, establishing the practice as a seemingly credible discipline.

In the most simplistic terms, here’s how crowdsourcing works. You have an idea that has not been fully fleshed out, or you have a problem you have not solved. You want the input of others before you arrive at a solution or next step, so you throw it to a group for discussion, debate and brainstorming. The group takes your initial idea or situation and arrives at a collective conclusion and solution, though given you are dealing with a group, you could end up with several next steps that are diametrically opposed.

Crowdsourcing purists might say that ideally, the crowdsourcing process should lead to a more definitive conclusion and direction.

What gives crowdsourcing its legs as a discipline is the emergence of social media, where collaboration among many disparate individuals from around the world can be tapped in ways that may have never before been possible. The theory is that if two heads are better than one, imagine what 3,000 heads from Texas to Japan might be when it comes to “ideation.”

To be sure, the people who came up with crowdsourcing might be on to something, but the practice also presents some obvious challenges. Once you turn your problem or idea over to a group in such an open-ended and public way, you are often likely to end up with committee-think. We’ve all heard this one: “What do you call a race horse designed by a committee?” Answer: “A camel.”

But beyond the practicality or perceived value of crowdsourcing as a practice, there are also some very real public relations implications. The first being whether or not the subject for discussion is or should be proprietary. The last thing you want is to start a discussion on a topic that could lead to damage control for your public relations team.

Tied to this, you have to know that once you initiate a crowdsourcing project, it will take on a life of its own and could go in a direction you can’t imagine. I recently read a story from a major daily which started a crowdsourcing thread that invited its hundreds of thousands of readers to share their comments on a specific topic. The editors promised participants that their comments would not only be quoted, but that they would essentially drive coverage of the particular topic, assigning the reader the roles of writer, editor and in the end, the subject of the story. I’m not sure if crowdsourcing has yet amounted to a trend, but it is certainly a fad in some news rooms.

This is the journalistic equivalent of that carnival mirror that shows you a reflection of a reflection of you ad infinitum. I don’t know about you, but after a few seconds, I find it’s time to walk away from the mirror and move on.