when a 'thank you' was the comms solution

Sometimes digital communications can create unexpected results. Take this tweet after a tragic hit and run incident.

by Chris Davies

Social media is a cruel mistress.

In years gone by communications professionals could pen an informative press release or piece of news and send it out into the world.

Evaluating how well it was received was difficult. Apart from the piece being picked up by the media, and the prominence it received, it was hard to assess how the general public felt about it.

Not today, not thanks to the power of the Like and the Retweet.

Now you can add your piece of news to your social media channel and wait for the verdict. These days we’re awash with stats about online traffic, page views and the many Facebook metrics. Analytics can inform you about ‘reach’ and how many people have seen it, but the one that matters is the Like – the stamp of approval from a grateful public.

Sadly, with only a few hundred people following the UHB’s Facebook page the Likes are not piling up as well as I’d like. Yes, there are the generous shows of support from family and friends but the pale blue thumbs ups are few and far between.

Then out of the blue (pardon the pun) there were 4,548 thumbs of approval from fans of the UHB’s page. Given that at the time Cardiff and Vale only had around 400 fans it was an astonishing response.

What generated it? Following the tragic events of the series of hit and runs in Ely last month we posted a short paragraph thanking staff for their incredible efforts.

It read:

@health_charity The UHB would like to thank staff for their incredible work during Friday’s traffic incident our thoughts are with all those involved.

Short, simple, succinct. No story. No picture. No video. Just a simple gesture of thanks.

It was seen by 29,309 people according to Facebook’s Insights, thanks in part no doubt to 67 people sharing it on their timelines. It attracted 80 comments of support and acknowledgment for staff and the part they played on a dark day in Cardiff’s history.

Why was it so far reaching?

I think a number of factors come into it. The incident itself was so extensively covered that people knew a lot about it and could relate to it easily. The tragedy of what happened to so many families made everyone stop and think and somehow become emotionally attached to the incident and anything linked to it.

The second thing that caused it to be shared so widely was that it was simple. Just a short sentence that people could easily absorb and support with a quick click.

In contrast the open letter from Chief Executive Adam Cairns on the Monday was very well received but attracted just 121 Likes, five comments and was ‘seen’ by 1,129 people on Facebook.

It was a sincere account of how difficult a night it had been, and acknowledged in much greater detail the amazing work done by all. But it didn’t get such a huge response.

I think part of the reason was the very fact that it had so much more depth. People couldn’t easily absorb it, Like and continue on to the next thing.

In writing this post it has also struck me that perhaps another reason it didn’t get the same reaction was the fact there was a link taking you to the full letter on the UHB’s website. Maybe people did connect with the letter but after reading it had no button to give it the ‘thumbs up’? The news page itself got 1,350 views so who knows?

That is part of the problem with social media at the moment; everyone is still learning and best practice is evolving all the time.

Worried about the usual low levels of likes for posts we were attracting I decided to look and see what other UK hospitals/trusts are attracting. I’m pleased to say that this isn’t just a Cardiff and Vale thing.

All these organisations have hundreds of likes for their pages but are still attracting only a few likes for their posts:

North Bristol NHS Trust - 816 likes

Central Manchester University Hospital NHS Trust - 348

Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham - 1076

NHS Lothian - 729

(there was also Great Ormond Street with a 94,686 likes but we won’t talk about that)

So what do we take away from this? Well I think that although these may be relatively new communications channels, and to a degree uncharted territory for health comms professionals, some of the same rules still apply.

A simple message is the most effective.

Also people will look to connect with a positive (in this instance the remarkable efforts of the emergency services) during dark days.

Plus, while social media is a cruel mistress, at least she’s treating us all mean but hopefully keeping us all keen too.

Chins (and thumbs) up.

Chris Davies is senior journalist at the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board. He also curates Comms4Health a blog come online forum with the hope of sharing best practice and improving collaboration between health communication professionals in the UK.