Crisis Management Through the Social Media Lens

While the following case study is not based on a hospital or health system event, the basic crisis management principles shared here can be easily applied to any organization, including those in the healthcare industry. This case study was written by one of our senior consultants, Dee Dee Becker, who – in addition to working as a healthcare marketing and social media strategist – spends her time volunteering as an admin for the Virginia Tech Parents Facebook group, a highly engaged and fast-growing community of nearly 9,000 members. Look at how one recent crisis at the university played out over social media within a 48-hour period.

As a healthcare social media consultant, it won’t surprise you to know that I spend a lot of time on Facebook. I manage Facebook communities for health systems, so you will often find me sitting in front of the computer – or connected to my mobile device when on the move. Hours and hours a day. And I love it. I enjoy the entertainment, the easy access to news and events, the instantaneous connections to family, friends and colleagues – and the energizing pace at which information flows. Most of all, I enjoy the sense of community that can be found in many of the Facebook groups of which I am a member – Virginia Tech Parents to name one of my favorites.

When my daughter, now a college junior, found herself at Virginia Tech three years ago, I stayed abreast of information by joining their Facebook parent group. Little did I know that I would become an admin of the group within a short timeframe. It is a true labor of love, and I could regale you with fantastic stories about it for days on end. No. Seriously. For daaaays. But I digress.

It happens that my background includes crisis management, so when the unexpected unfolded in January when a student was arrested for having an assault rifle, our typically smooth-sailing group could have headed for the unwieldy. But I was not having any of that…

This case study was originally written as a reference tool for the Facebook admin team of Virginia Tech Parents Facebook group, but the tactics can be applied for large Facebook groups of any healthcare system, school, or organization of nearly any kind. The actions described herein come on the heels of recent events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and at Virginia Tech, which survived a profoundly difficult chapter in history in 2007.

Perhaps you saw the national news a few weeks back about a Virginia Tech freshman who was arrested for illegally possessing assault rifles. According to court records, he also tried to buy 5,000 rounds of ammunition, researched bullet proof vests, and bought a former police car which he outfitted with special bumpers. In short, he is no longer a student – and numerous stories made the news from local to regional and national outlets, too.

As expected – and given Virginia Tech’s well-known history from 2007 – this event kept its Facebook parent group of nearly 9,000 members overwhelmingly engaged with rightfully concerned parents. In addition, a massive boost in member requests occurred because the group was referenced in the news. Those who were not aware of its existence most assuredly are now. To manage the unexpected disruption to our “usual and customary” group behavior, my admin team and I implemented the following procedures, some of which you may find helpful in any number of challenging scenarios.


  1. Herd the cattle. In a crisis, posts will start popping up like popcorn, and it can be difficult to manage those conversations if you don’t funnel them to one central place. Create a single post addressing your group and tell them this is the official discussion thread for the “situation.” Grab a link to your post and paste it in every new post that appears regarding the issue so that it leads them to your official discussion thread. Then turn off commenting on these popcorn posts. (If you use the post approval process in your group, you can simply tag members in the official discussion thread or PM them with a link, and then choose to decline their post.)
  2. Establish a direct line of communication with the university/company/organization as an admin of your group. Reach out to administration, HR, and/or campus police, etc., if they haven’t already reached out to you. In fact, I recommend doing this now before you ever have a crisis, because fostering relationships and open communications with key staff is mutually beneficial. It helps to have them feeding you timely information, including links to official statements as soon as they are released.
  3. Create a Secret Group – the (Name of Your University/Org/Company) Admin Group. You may already use a Facebook group chat to communicate with your admin team. Consider also creating a Secret Admin Group. This helps in terms of sharing screenshots, creating photo albums, and keeping track of different discussion themes. One post for problem members. Another thread for help with vetting member requests. Yet another for sharing new updates from the organization to your admin team. And more. My admin team uses this secret group regularly to manage daily operations, but it was especially helpful during the crisis. It’s easier to see everything in a Facebook group format as opposed to doing a lengthy scroll back in a group chat to find something important.
  4. Manage the discussion:
    • Be transparent with your members. Tell your group that you are in touch with university/organization staff but that you don’t have all the answers right now – and that you may not ever have those answers, but you are keeping the lines of communication open. Ask your members to list their questions by commenting on your discussion thread. This undoubtedly creates some efficiencies for university/company staff by keeping their phones lines from ringing as much. It also assists you in maintaining control of your group, because members feel heard, helped and grateful for the open discussion – even if they aren’t getting all the answers they’d like to hear. It becomes a bonding experience. They mostly want a place to convene and discuss – and yes, vent. And even bend the rules a bit if necessary. Here’s why…
    • Implement “Admin discretion” if necessary. You have rules in your group, and likely one of those rules is “No Politics.” In our case, the issue ultimately evolved into discussions about gun control. You cannot talk about gun control without discussing State law/code – so the conversation automatically dipped into politics. Since the conversation was an important one, we implemented “Admin discretion” and allowed political discussion only within this official thread to help members better understand what exactly happened and how and why the student was arrested. At times, pro and anti-gun owners would get heated with each other, so we inserted directives to close off discussion on those particular sub-threads which served no value to the group. We reminded everyone that we appreciated the opportunity to share and discuss both sides of the coin, but that we were not going to solve gun control concerns in this group…but feel free to reach out to lawmakers to effect change. Thankfully, everyone fully understood and followed all directives.
    • Delete comments that go against your rules and/or further incite fear and anger. You’re the admin. Your group. Your rules. Make no apologies about deleting comments without warning. Just do it. You have no time to be chasing down members to explain why their comment needs to come down, especially in a crisis. Nuff said.
    • When to turn off comments to the centralized discussion thread. At the 48-hour mark, we recognized repeat questions, so the admin team determined the entire discussion had run full course. We inserted closing remarks and turned off commenting. The comment gave thanks to everyone for participating in the discussion, asked everyone to feel free to review the thread since many key questions were already asked and answered, and told them that we would do our best to obtain answers to outstanding questions. We also acknowledged the likeliness that some questions would not be answered due to the ongoing investigation. Finally, we told them we were ready to get back to regular group operating procedures and to have a nice weekend because we all earned it! Members responded well.
  5. Manage group join requests. You will receive an abundance of requests to join during a crisis. You have two choices. A) Accept them all to broaden your audience for expanded communications opportunity; or B) temporarily cease this operation until peace and calm resume, and to prevent unintentionally adding those who would join under false pretenses (e.g. “bad actors”, journalists looking for a story, curiosity seekers – and even some pot stirrers associated with who/what caused your crisis in the first place). In our case, we chose to stop accepting members for the first 48 hours with exception of members of the campus police department who requested access and were properly vetted beforehand through a trusted source. Days and weeks later, as the investigation continues, you will still get numerous member requests. Be cautious. If something seems off about a particular request, don’t allow them in. Be sure to make use of the Facebook feature which allows you to add up to three questions to help vet members.

A crisis is a unique time that requires intentional action to maintain decorum and trust with your members. I’m pleased to report everything we did worked well, but this will be a long journey ahead as the investigation continues, and especially as the political climate evolves with the subject content in general. We see more “official discussion” threads necessary in our future.

DeeDee Becker

Crisis Communications Image Credit: AdWeek, September 9, 2014