In the new NHS, you are what you tweet

Social media is no longer optional but an essential tool that must be used by ‘communitarians’ offering value

In the new NHS, you are what you tweet

Interest across the public sector in social media is growing exponentially. Organisations big and small, national and local, responsible for policy making and for delivery, are all seeking to understand what social media is and what it can do for them and their service users, stakeholders and influencers.

Many have already dipped their toe in the water but most are still hesitant, unsure how to go about developing and implementing an effective social media capability.

Ofcom research published in July shows that social media is here to stay, with significant and ever-increasing adoption. This is particularly so among 19-24 year olds - a notoriously difficult-to-reach group for many public sector organisations. 

According to Ofcom, social networking is used daily to communicate by about one third (32 per cent) of adults and is the biggest claimed increase in communication methods used in the past two years among 16-24 year olds (31 per cent net claimed increase).

Cogitamus was invited by the NHS Confederation to conduct a three-month study on current use and future trends in social media, including an online survey, plus in-depth interviews, with social media leads for 25 leading organisations. The results were striking. 

We found that to avoid falling behind, organisations have no time to lose. Almost all are actively reviewing their use of social media, often in conjunction with a review of overall communications strategy.

In particular, organisations need to move from what we call “broadcasters” to “communitarians”. Broadcasters see social media as simply another channel through which to continue traditional habits of speaking “at” people. For a broadcaster, social media is little more than a reformatted press release or traditional report to be consumed by passive recipients.

In contrast, a communitarian sees its role as engaging, listening, responding, and supporting communities of individuals, of which there are broadly two types: communities of practice and communities of interest.

The former equate to organisational structures or work area. The latter are more closely aligned with specific policy imperatives or professional disciplines.

Organisations should not try to create or invent communities of individuals. Communities exist out there already. The power of social media derives from its ability to tap into these communities and genuinely enhance their ability to communicate and collaborate. The move from broadcaster to communitarian is not simply “nice to have”. It is what is happening on the ground, being actively appreciated and pursued by existing and experienced social media practitioners.

We asked about 21 possible purposes for which organisations may use social media currently and in the future, grouped into three categories: broadcaster, listener and communitarian. At present, the majority are regularly using it for broadcasting activities (talking at people), only occasionally using it for listening activities and hardly ever for communitarian activities (engaging with people).

However, almost all say they are planning to adopt this full range of communitarian activities in the future.

We also found social media use is dominated by the “four musketeers” of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube. These four co-exist because they serve complementary purposes in different ways. Organisations need to appreciate the different purposes that each of them serves if they are to use them efficiently and most effectively;

Ninety-four per cent of respondents said their organisations used Twitter for corporate purposes, 67 per cent used YouTube and LinkedIn, and 61 per cent Facebook.

In addition, one strong theme which emerged during interviews was a recognition by practitioners of the significance of the cultural and organisational challenge in harnessing and using social media to greatest effect.

Crucially, to ensure it remains valuable and relevant, social media strategy must be closely and explicitly aligned with core aims and outcomes, embedded in key activities, adequately resourced and explicitly performance managed.

Our report includes useful tips for organisations interested in establishing social media, but unsure about how to do so. It also contains observations and real-life examples of good and poor practice.

To those about to set out on their own social media journey, we offer best wishes and good luck. Contact us with your own successes, lessons learned or questions.

Joe McCrea is director - health practice at Cogitamus, and former adviser to the 10 Downing Street Policy Unit.

@joemccrea1966

Find out more

Daniel Reynolds | 14-Aug-2012 4:43 PM

This is very interesting Joe, thanks for sharing this study. I agree that social media platforms are changing for the better the way organisations should (and, in some cases, are) communicating with their audiences. We’re still in the low foothills though as many orgs use this primarily, as you say, to ‘broadcast’ rather than engage in a genuinely two-way conversation. I think this is a natural process though as for many orgs social media can be viewed as a threat – something that takes away an element of control. Once they gain confidence and see the significant value though, orgs start to evolve their approach. For me it’s a great way of complimenting traditional approaches to dissemination (such as through the media) and going directly to the people you want to engage with. And the beauty of social media is that platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook etc are free to use – although you do of course need to invest in people (or train existing staff) that know how to maximise use of these different channels. I enjoyed reading Lisa Rodrigues’ accompanying article with her tips. She’s right that the same rules apply to social media as in any other communication – e.g. the need for honesty, clarity and avoiding jargon etc. However, while she doesn’t advocate producing social media policies, I‘d say this is important – (a) to provide useful guidance and parameters for staff intending to use social media, possibly for the first time and (b) so activity is positioned as part of a wider organisational strategy. Social media activities will largely fail if they are not seen as directly contributing to an org’s overall strategic objectives. I met some young doctors recently – the vast majority of which had Smartphones and iPads and were all signed up to at least one or two social media channels. They were using these tools in their everyday work and found it a fundamentally important way of engaging with people/networking and for information gathering. And this isn’t restricted to young docs – most people we engage with are familiar with at least one of these channels and use them effectively. So, I think we’ve already crossed the tipping point as social media is definitely no longer an optional add-on, but an essential tool for engaging with people and communities.

Unsuitable or offensive?

Cassander | 15-Aug-2012 1:44 PM

I was looking through the comments above after a morning spent on the latest PROMs data. One of the most striking findings from the latter was that wealthier patients receiving hip and knee replacements typically had less severe symptoms than poorer patients. Social media is a fantastic tool, and no doubt there will be ways of using it which will benefit patients. Unfortunately, at least to start with, it will typically be the better-educated, wealthier patients who are best placed to access these benefits. It would be good to see some thoughts on how the potential of this emerging technology can be utilised to help the core business of the NHS - the old, the chronically sick, the poor, the less-educated.

Unsuitable or offensive?

Top Stories HSJ Live rolling news News HSJ Local Leadership Comment Resource Centre Jobs