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Unpleasantness on social media

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I spend a lot of time writing about healthcare. I also spend a lot of time writing about marketing (and to be honest, writing about writing).

It’s not often I get to do them both together; but this extraordinary story caught my eye.

It is the story of an Essex GP surgery which will potentially sanction patients for taking their grievances to social media.

Copyright precludes me from sharing the picture with you, but the text reads:

“If you have any comments or complaints about the surgery, please write to the Practice Manager. Do not use social media sites – Facebook Twitter. Any comments we see on social media sites may be seen as a breach of our zero tolerance policy. We are happy to deal with your comments/complaints in the usual way.”

Let’s start with the inability to communicate effectively. A zero tolerance policy on what?

It turns out that the (apparent) issue is one of rudeness. Staff are rightly upset that patients have taken to social media channels (in fact, the local newspaper’s Facebook page) to vent their spleen at real or perceived bad service. This has included “appalling language” and the always unpleasant naming of individuals. This, says a member of practice staff, is tantamount to bullying.

Fair dos.

But this surgery is missing the point. It’s a bit woolly (and it’s very expensive), but there is legal recourse for anyone who feels unjustly maligned online. I have no doubt that some of Essex’ less savoury characters find it much easier to hurl a personal insult than to find a better way to complain. But I come from a medical family, and GP surgeries attract everyone from princes to thieves and everyone in between, and a thick skin comes with the job. No, this is not really about bullying.

We can see that it’s not about bullying because an additional line was added after the story broke in the news:

“This ensures we can respond to people’s concerns with patient confidentiality in mind.”

This is cobblers. It suggests that there is a zero tolerance policy to publication of data, which (a) there isn’t, and (b) is entirely up to the patient. For anyone reading this from a healthcare point of view, you’ll also know that it panders to the most desperate of concerns about clinical information security. Many professionals in the health data sector (including me) are trying to help people see that information sharing is crucial to better clinical outcomes, and this is a second-rate fudge of an excuse. All the clinic’s staff would have to do is reply with a stock response, “We’d like to give you a great service. I’m here to help. To protect your privacy, please contact the surgery at the earliest convenience.” That even fits nicely into 140 characters, for Twitter fans.

No, I think the issue lies in the original (if badly-crafted) wording. The staff are unhappy at being named and shamed, admittedly rudely.

But let’s step back a little. What does “We are happy to deal with your comments/complaints in the usual way.” mean? It means “We are happy to deal with them our way”. If a private sector organisation attempted to rein in its customers in this way, it would become a laughing stock. If a private sector organisation stopped providing its service every time people complained, it would go out of business.

(This obviously doesn’t apply to trains; which says more about monopolies than customer service).

My point is that this is an example of a public sector institution being alarmingly behind the times in terms of its service and communication obligations. This surgery’s patients may be boorish. They may be first-class oafs. But they are entitled to their opinions, and as citizens they are also entitled to a healthcare service.  You can’t just remove it because people complain publicly, even when they’re hopelessly, misguidedly wrong.

The online world encourages whimsy. Not a total abdication of responsibility or common sense, but whimsy. It’s essential for service professionals (and marketers) to recognise that a drawback of the online environment is a lack of forethought, and that goes for our customers. Some just want to complain, some have been told that if you vent it out on Twitter or Facebook, the magic response fairy will come and sort it out without 20 minutes on hold to Greensleeves. As service providers, we just have to suck it up. Better still, suck it up, exceeed expectations, and turn critics into evangelists.

And if you don’t agree with me, please don’t post a reply – it’s a violation of my zero tolerance policy…