Wednesday, June 17, 2009, 11:35 AM

Interview: Anne Arundel Medical Center enters the social media space

We're doing things a bit differently today.

A few readers have suggested we start posting Q & A's with communications professionals who will take us "under the hood" at their organizations and show us what they are doing to influence public opinion in positive ways. We've been wanting to do it for some time as well, so let's get started.

Today's Q & A is with Justin Paquette, media coordinator for Anne Arundel Medical Center. AAMC is a private, non-profit health center in Annapolis, Maryland with nearly 3,000 employees. By way of background, AAMC staff performs more than 22,000 surgical procedures and handles more than 72,000 emergency service visits per year, as of 2007. (AAMC is not a client of Womble Carlyle's.)

Justin was kind enough to give us some perspective on how AAMC has embraced social media in recent months to reach its stakeholders in new and creative ways. Here's our Q & A:

1. Describe the new communications tools AAMC is using to communicate with its audience.

Justin Paquette: AAMC is in a position many hospitals find themselves in – where we must balance new media with traditional media in our overall marketing mix. A recent survey conducted by the organization Ad-ology found that 53 percent of patients between the ages of 25 and 34 had their health care decisions influenced by social media. Yet, many patients are still influenced by traditional media and advertising.

So we’re trying to find that balance where we’re effectively communicating AAMC’s message in a number of different ways – reaching each “audience niche.”

Some of the new tools we’ve implemented are podcasts featuring the AAMC clinicians our region has come to trust. We call it the AAMC Health Connection Podcast, and it’s updated regularly, and archived on our Web site. We’re the second hospital in Maryland to feature original podcast programming.

We’ve also launched AAMC’s Twitter account, @AAMCNews, a running stream of AAMC News, as well as health care articles from news sites across the country.

I’m currently conducting some research into the feasibility/ROI of a running blog from our administration over the next fiscal year, updating our audience on AAMC news, events, and updates.

2. What value do Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts offer AAMC that you didn’t have before? How does it benefit your patients and other AAMC stakeholders?

JP: New media and the power of the internet have allowed any brand to become, in a sense, its own media franchise. New media also allows an unprecedented level of message preservation; direct from the source.

You can compare this to going and picking your own fruit, straight from the field. New media allows AAMC to push our clinicians, news, and updates directly to our audience.

I said this in a recent interview, there is a lot of anonymity that comes with using the internet for information. And in health care, that anonymity can be scary. But AAMC is a brand our audience has come to trust, so we’re able to break through that anonymity, and supply health care information that our audience can know is reliable, because it carries the AAMC brand.

3. If AAMC has something to say, couldn’t you just send out a press release?

JP: Well we can, and do, use press releases to push out AAMC news. Right now, AAMC’s new media efforts are just an addition to the overall hospital marketing mix.

But newsroom cuts, shrinking news holes, and increased syndication have really limited the role newspapers are able to play in pushing out news. Many of the journalists and editors that AAMC has worked with are unfortunately, no longer in those roles. We still enjoy great relationships with the local/regional/state media, but they can only dedicate so much room to any given organization or business. So by making our Web site, http://www.aahs.org/ a “news hub” of its own, and by using all these new tools, we can get our own message out.

I’ll give you a quick example – just the other day I called a Maryland paper to pitch a story to their health reporter – and she was getting married the next week. She was the sole reporter who could handle this story, and was going to be out for two weeks. The story couldn’t be done by them, even though it fell right in the strike zone of their audience.

4. How did you sell the broader AAMC leadership – administrators, doctors, etc. – on the value of these new communications tools? Have they embraced this new strategy?

JP: AAMC has an administration that is consistently on the forefront of strategic decisions that will benefit those that the hospital serves. While we are still in the early stages of adopting new technology and new methods of reaching our audience, our administration has, thus far, been open to new ideas.

The hardest part for any organization, including ours, is measuring any value of these new services. Traditionally, we’ve been able to point to an article in the Baltimore Sun, for example, and know that we’ve succeeded with a given pitch. But with new media, that ROI is harder to measure. We need new metrics, new measurement.

In addition, for a hospital (and any brand) limits have to be implemented with any social media service. For example, on our Twitter account, I have expressly noted on our profile that a “follow” is not an endorsement. I set this protection because while we want AAMC to be in the health care conversation, we need to be sure our audience knows that we cannot advocate for what others are posting on their accounts. Just like in any other conversation, we can only be responsible for what we say.

But one example, I recently used Twitter to push out a link to the article from the Annapolis Capital discussing our podcast launch. That “tweet” was “re-tweeted” by six others in the first hour after my initial post. Suddenly, hundreds of eyes that we would never have reached were viewing this article, and pushing it on. That viral component is where the power of new media lies.

5. What has been the response – from patients, the press, and the broader public – to this new communications strategy?

JP: Answering for our patients at this point is hard – but I can tell you that the web hits on our podcast landing pages are climbing, so we know people are listening. That has been encouraging.

As for the press, I’ve actually been interacting with a number of reporters via Twitter and have been really excited about the back-and-forth that has generated as a result. Reporters and editors are using Twitter for story ideas, and it’s such a unique way to get in touch with them.

Our physicians have been excited about the podcasts, as well – I’m already getting calls from clinicians on our medical staff saying, “I saw the new podcasts, and would love to talk about such-and-such, a question I hear in my office all the time.” And that is exactly the response we were hoping to get.

6. Does adopting social media and podcasts mean you no longer need to focus on “traditional” public relations, i.e. journalists, advertising, and community relations?

JP: I don’t believe so. I think new media at this point is merely an addendum to utilization of traditional media. Members of the audience any brand is trying to reach lie in a number of different places. It’s our job to use as many different methods as we can to reach those people, and communicate with them.

In his book What Would Google Do, Jeff Jarvis cites a conversation he heard at a forum where someone asked the founder of Facebook a question like: “How do I get my audience to communicate with me?” And the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg answered back something to the effect of: “They’re already talking about you; you just need to go to where they are.” Not the conversation verbatim, but it was a great response from a leader in new media to someone trying to figure it all out.

7. Some say that sites like Twitter and Facebook let organizations “take the pulse” of the public on specific issues. Can you give a specific example of what AAMC has learned by “taking the pulse” of the online public?

JP: Via Twitter, I learned from the general public that nobody knows what HCAHPS is. HCAHPS is an incredibly valuable patient satisfaction tool. This confirmed to me that, as a PR professional, my job is to help the public understand the utility of this tool, what it means and how it’s measured. And most importantly, how it impacts them.

8. What advice would you give an organization – particularly another medical center – that is unsure whether to make social media a part of its communications strategy?

JP: It may seem simple, but I would say: Embrace new media carefully and always put the brand before anything else. Do your research, learn the tools, and learn how to use them in a way that will benefit you.

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