Social media, our voice, and the power to destroy

The ability for all of us to publish on the social web — to have a voice — is among the most profound sociological, economic, and political developments of our lifetime. It gives us the power to elevate a little boy from Canada to an international singing superstar or to unite a group of people to tear down a dictatorship.

This democratization of power is the central theme of my new book, Return On Influence.  This new power is breathtaking and beautiful. It is inspirational and revolutionary. And, it can be deadly.

We have all seen how social media can be used to bully and destroy. A few months ago on {grow} Leslie Lewis told the story of how her career was destroyed by a social media stalker.  A year ago, a student at Rutgers (where I teach) killed himself after Internet humiliation.

Last week, I was also in a position to use social media power to destroy.

My wife had been admitted to a local hospital for a routine procedure.  We experienced the usual delays and administrative foul-ups (had wrong name on her bracelet!) that we have come to expect from the medical profession but nothing prepared me for the horror I was about to experience.

When I was called to her recovery room (where she was still asleep), I could not believe my eyes. The room was filthy. The trash can was filled with tubes and debris from another patient’s procedure. There was trash all over the floor — paper, a used drinking straw, and pieces of some strange green organic material. Worst of all, there were drops of blood (not hers!) across the floor. I was disgusted and outraged. These were like the conditions I have heard about from missionary doctors working in a Third World country.

I took out my phone and took both pictures and video to document the mess … with my wife sleeping peacefully in the middle of it. Nobody would believe this.

I finally was able to flag down an attendant and angrily pointed out the problem. Her response was “Oh … I didn’t see that.”

Perhaps you could overlook a clear drinking straw on a white floor, but certainly not bright red blood drops or a trash can overflowing with used plastic tubes.

When the surgeon came in, I explained how repulsed I was … and I was still feeling ill about the unsanitary conditions even after the blood was wiped up (with a wet paper towel). He said that he would report it and that I would be getting a call from the hospital administration.

Twenty-four hours later I had not received a call and I was still seething.  My adrenaline was saying “post the video.” Instead, I posted a query on Facebook and asked the world what they would do. The recommendations ranged from “keep it in-house” to “get the media involved.”

I called the patient advocate and reached a voice recording, notifying me that she was only available during certain business hours. I also tried to leave a request through the hospital website but the form was broken and I just got an error message.

Later that day, I received a return call from the patient advocate. She was professional and apologetic and said she would investigate the situation.

Two days after this discussion, my wife got a call of apology from the head of the department and a letter from the patient advocate. And that’s how it stands.

This episode represented the first time in my life that I had a “social media voice” go off in my head … “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? I HAVE A VOICE!”  I knew that I could have humiliated this hospital on the evening news … maybe even caused an investigation of some kind. Perhaps I should have.

But whether you agree with my decision or not, I hope you will consider this advice: If you ever get into a situation where you can use your social media power to destroy, don’t let adrenaline make the decision for you.  That’s how people are getting hurt and humiliated these days.

When I let the adrenaline subside, I thought about the situation and realized that if I went public with this, the most likely outcome would be that some hourly-wage attendant would lose her job. I would probably be hurting a family more than a hospital.  That is not what I’m about. That was not the right decision for me.

Every day I see destruction, hate, and viciousness on the web from people who can’t keep their adrenaline in check.  The social web is a place of stunning beauty and terrible darkness … just like the human race I suppose.

I’ll open myself and my actions to public scrutiny because this is an important topic we are all likely to face at some point. Did I do enough as a civic duty in this case?  What would you do if you were in a position to use social media to destroy?

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  • Mark, what you’ve done on that hospital situation is right. Many of those short-tempered social network(s) folks would have done the opposite thing. Such incidents occurred to me in recent times too. Using social media to destroy the involved isn’t the case. Seldom, it may give required justice. My question is what if they are some giants/brands and what if our social voice goes silent/without any effect.

  • A very deep and interesting topic. Social media and social justice. We’ll be debating that for years to come! Thanks for the great comment! 

  • People need to carefully think about the consequences of their actions (either online or offline).  Sometimes, as you suggested, the desired effect is not accomplished if the approach sends the wrong message. More importantly, companies need to learn how to interpret the messages they “hear” and respond in a meaningful way.  This is the power of social media and we’re all still learning how to morph to it.

    That said, I’m not sure I agree with your approach as a SM launch (correctly done) may have uncovered a much more glaring problem whereas this way, the hospital was able to bascially bury it. But, just like sending that “flaming email”, take a deep breath (count to ten, sleep on it) before hitting the irrecoverable send button.

  • I recently had a situation like this happen, in which destroying something wasn’t even my intent — but I did anyway. A few months ago, my daughter brought home a picture from school that she had drawn on some scratch paper — on the back of which were some medical records. I posted about the incident on Facebook (mostly a “wow. can you believe that?” sort of thing) and called the medical company who was listed on the records (the records were from the medical company, but on the letterhead of a law firm) to give them a heads-up. Since I’m not your usually mommy, in the meantime a reporter from one of the stations in town saw my Facebook post and called me for an interview. Needless to say, the whole incident blew up…big time. Last night my daughter was at ice skating lessons and my husband told the grandmother of another kid whom she was skating with that they should come over to our house for a playdate sometime. And the grandmother said, “my daughter won’t agree to that. Because of your wife, she nearly lost her job.” Evidently, she was the parent from my kid’s school who worked at the law firm and donated the paper. I, of course, feel terrible that, because of one post on FB, my kid can’t play with this woman’s daughter. (Though, I’m not ultimately sad that the law firm got busted for donating medical records for kids to scribble on.) Just another reminder to think before you hit post. The repercussions can be swift, powerful and life-changing for those around you.

  • And some people call you negative, jeez! It must have taken a good deal of restraint not to even post the photo’s on FB, let alone your blog. I admire you letting your cooled off head prevail.

    And this might sound crass, but maybe that hourly worker should have been fired or the department head shaken down a bit. From your description, the conditions were clearly unacceptable and the casual reactions from the staff lead me to believe this wasn’t an isolated incidence. Acting as Lucifer’s advocate, maybe it’s even a disservice to the next victim that is put into a disgraceful environment because you didn’t take the kill shot. That’s a bit dramatic, but I can’t help but to ask what-if.

  • it could go either way. Maybe they count themselves lucky … or maybe it will be forgotten. Honestly, my hunch is the latter based on what I have seen but I won’t be going back there ever again.

  • With great power comes great responsibility .. and sometimes the consequences suck.  A very interesting story Jen. Thanks for taking the time to share that! 

  • People call me negative???  Send them here:

    That’s a new one : ) Rational yes, negative no. : ) 

    I recognize your point here and think that is certainly a viable point of view. Thanks Tony! 

  • That is probably the message they need to hear (you’ll not be coming back and will likely advise others to find a different health care facility). And, likely, there are others who feel the same way based on their experiences. As organizations learn to pay attention to this kind of Social Influence, services will improve.  The auto sector is one of the best examples of this. People wanted quality and over the past number of years, the foriegn manufacturers delivered, almost killing many North American icons.  Was it the people (workers) who created the problems in the big three?  No, foreign manufactures proved this by building good cars domestically with the same people the other guys cut loose as their businesses declined. It was only when the NA manufacturers finally listened to their customers and changed their method of operations did things change.

  • I think you have done the right thing by not publicly humiliating a hospital. Although it seems they have atrocious sanitary conditions, they probably have saved many lives despite the obviously bad approach the staff takes towards cleanliness. I think it is always a good idea to go with the less publicly aggressive tactics until you can get absolutely no response from anyone. Unfortunately, when dealing huge bureaucracies, hardly anything can make a dent in their policies.

    The hospital lost a customer in your case, and probably many more before you. They have lost a piece of their reputation because of your bad experience.  I’m sure you won’t be sending any of your friends there for their medical care! And you are right, it would probably have been the hourly worker who got fired, making a family suffer in this terrible economy. 

    I think you’ve made the right decision. 🙂

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  • That’s what I said, Mark! Guess we can’t make everyone happy. It was actually on a comment in my {grow} project post! Take care.

  • Maybe I’m dense but I don’t see the comments on that post. Probably user error.

  • Thanks for weighing-in on this Rachel!

  • Mark,
    Your story humbles me, as a representative of the hospital-based medical community. I would like to think that “this couldn’t happen in my hospital” yet I know in my sinking heart that it can, and probably has. Yet, 99% of the time we uphold the highest of cleanliness standards and attention to patient and family needs. However, 99% is not good enough when it is your room, or the quality of care provided to your family member. So, they need to know, and they need to take it seriously. You have clearly done your part–they know. Or, at least the patient advocate and the surgeon know. But how seriously have they taken it? Would they take it more seriously if they thought you would disseminate the information through your social media networks? Would they if they thought you would sue them? Have they informed the CEO? I suspect he or she would be completely chagrined to know the kind of conditions you found in the room. 

    That is the real important question that would determine for me whether or not I returned to the hospital. If I called or wrote to the CEO I would expect an answer, and I would expect ACTION. Not to fire a line worker with no leadership responsibility, but to look at what in their system prevents the room being adequately cleaned regardless of who the line worker is. After all, just as we expect to land safely when we take off in a jet, and we expect the wheels NOT to fall off our car while we drive, we have a right to expect the six sigma or better level of perfection in health care. I would expect more than the apology you received. I would expect the hospital to tell you what they will do to prevent such a thing from happening to any one else. If they did that, wouldn’t that make you feel like you could consider using them again? The most progressive of hospitals might take your complaint and invite you to participate in helping them to fix it. Not by coming in to clean up the rooms, but to identify your expectations, and help them to visualize the system and how it can be enhanced. A simple check list should work in this scenario.

    As to your question about the use of social media to destroy an institution, or a company or a brand: I guess I agree that it would not have been helpful to use your social media influence to expose the conditions you witnessed. Yet, hospitals have to take accountability for the things that go wrong, even if they don’t lead directly in that moment to patient harm. 

  • Wow it is amazing to have your “insider’s” perspective on this Alice. You add so much to this blog community. Thank you! 

  • Monica Goel

    I  got into a similar situation at a resort recently and for a moment adrenaline rush made me do something like posting it online and then I realized that these young men and women were trainees and could have lost their jobs. But having said that, I know for sure the team will forget the incident and not bother to change since I left it there. I am learning how to balance the Power of SM and tolerance.

  • Mark, first, I hope your wife is recovered or recovering well.

    Wow. That is disturbing and a powerful message. What is particularly disturbing to me here is the basis for the conclusion you reached. It is sad that today responsibility for infractions is shrugged off or handed down. You may be right, someone that was put into an impossible working situation and couldn’t afford to be fired would be hurt the worst by you sharing the video. However, as long as that is the case, real change will not happen. In contrast, consider the letter posted by the Editor of Onward State after falsely reporting Joe Paterno had died. So I am encouraged by the decision you made (and I only hope I would have the restraint you did), but I’m disturbed by the corporate environment that has led all of us to determine we cannot speak up against infractions like this for fear they will be shrugged off, the blame misplaced, and the environment that led to it in the first place left unchanged. 

    How do we use our social media voice to change THAT?

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  • Mark,

    I agree with your decision. I made a decision when I started my blog years ago that I would not go “negative.” Since then I’ve had many occasions where I’ve wanted to say, “Do you know who I am?! I have a blog!” But I’ve never followed through on it.

    One thing you can do, however, is write a letter (on real paper!) and send it and the photos to the CEO of the hospital, the board and anyone else you can think of. I would also include the letter from the patient advocate and this blog post.

    Companies and organizations HAVE to know that it’s so easy now to post negative experiences in very public spaces. The hospital administration HAS to know that its level of patient care is not at 100%. 

    Taking these actions would be a positive step — to helping the hospital and other patients.

    I hope your wife is ok and that this situation resolves itself for the good.

  • I could relate to you a number of horror stories from my own or my family’s interactions with the health care system. There are many times I could have used my position in the community to negate a hospital’s high standing in the opinion polls. In the end, I didn’t do it. Not sure, though if I was just chicken or if my decision was for the best. 

  • I am a big believer in giving feedback – good or bad – to companies. I think there’s a place for less than stellar reviews of products, but I think it has to be constructive. I can’t imagine leaving comments or writing posts that would defame an entity or individual. The seductive power of online influence can be used to make this world a better place or we can become bullies that bash our way to “better” service. Thing is, that doesn’t really even work.

    I’ll admit that I have publicly pointed out deficiencies in service on social media channels in the past, but I have always avoided brand-bashing. When I have had a resolution, I share it because the couple of instances where I’ve had reason to talk about these instances I received excellent follow-up service on my concerns. I resist impulse to voice those complaints via social media channels more now than I did a few years ago. There’s too much potential for mob mentality to jump in and brand-bashing to begin. I’d rather go to them directly with my concerns.

  • This post really struck a chord with me.

    I had an incident that caused me to come to the same conclusion recently too. I posted on Facebook that I was sad that my one son always gets the ‘strict’ teacher. Turns out an old high school friend is the step son of said teacher. Not a big problem, except in how the school handled it. Teacher got offended and demanded a meeting with both my husband and myself — but wouldn’t tell us why. She kept saying it was to talk about our son going into the gifted program. This struck me as odd since none of our friends had big meetings to begin testing for gifted. The day before the meeting, she let us know that the Principal would be in attendance as well.

    Well, it turned into an ambush. She pulled out a printed copy of my Facebook post (someone had printed it off) and confronted me in the Principal’s office. I apologized that she had gotten her feelings hurt, but defended my right to post my opinion on my private Facebook page. The Principal asked me to refrain from posting about teachers on my page.

    Then I got MAD. I kept thinking that it wasn’t fair that the administration didn’t back ME up. When a teacher came to them, sad that a parent thinks they are strict, they should have said “Sorry — you can’t please everyone!” Instead, they pulled my husband and I out of work for a secret ambush. Was this censorship? Did they go too far? I could certainly call in my contacts at the paper and look into this!

    But I didn’t. In our school, kids keep their teachers for two years. My son has to deal with this woman for two years on a daily basis. Morphing into “that” mom, looking for publicity and payback really only meant I was going to hurt him in the process.

    It’s a decision I struggled with for sure!

  • I tend to post specific interactions with companies only when there’s a lesson to be learned, not just as retaliation.  But there’s a caveat — the flip side of the “no harm no foul” rule.  When the health or safety of the public is at risk, I vote for full disclosure.  And you have no way of knowing whether your experience was an anomaly (an apathetic employee) or a systemic failure (think Walter Reed).  

    In this case, I would be on the side of going public to force some transparency.  I think that would actually force a fairer outcome, because the media attention would bring any other similar experiences to light and discourage the firing of a single “scapegoat” employee (if it’s an institutional problem I’m sure other staff would speak to it off the record).

    So I’d pose this question to you: would you have reacted differently if your wife had contracted a serious illness due to the unsanitary conditions?  Because if it’s a systemic problem, that’s bound to happen at some point unless someone forces the hospital to get its act together.

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  • That really sums up the problem! Thanks for your comment.

  • Sounds like. Blog post Eric! Explore the question … It’s a big one.

  • This is very wise advice Dianna. Really a template for response in a lot of situations I think! Thank you so much!

  • I really like this clear-headed approach. I wish everybody acted as wisely and maturely as the people in the blog community! Thanks so much for your excellent comment!

  • Wow. Schools and Facebook. What a hornet’s nest. I’ve heard some real horror stories too.

    I think in general, the administration handled this poorly — Facebook or no Facebook. At the end of the day, teachers are public servants, paid by our tax dollars. They are here to serve, not ambush us!!

    Very disappointing. I’m not sure I would shown your restraint but certainly understand the impact on the child. Thanks for illuminating this issue with your experience Tara!

  • Forcing me to think? No fair. I have been struggling with this and here’s why … Just because of the SERIES of missteps along the way, my suspicion is that this may be chronic. I’m going to take the step recommended by several here and take this to the hospital administration. Thanks very much for the dissenting point of view.

  • Mark,

    I think you made a great decision. The reality is you do have a form of power, and I think with that comes the responsibility to use it judiciously.  So many are quick to trash a business publicly without even trying to address the situation directly and professionally.

    We all see a lot of people in social media whose first step is to bring out the big guns. It often seems to me like they are lashing out in outsized fashion against one company to make up for years of bad service and feeling powerless. Sure, there are instances when nothing else has worked (United breaks guitars) but to start there?

    I, for one, think you made the right choice. Kudos.

  • We like the way you handled the situation you had, Mark — most of us are using Social Media (both personally and professionally) to build something. So when the impulse to tear something down arises, the thoughts of how hard you worked to build your “thing” come to mind and allow you to take another second and think about whether there is a way to address your concerns that could turn out positive, which is what we would suggest to any small business owner who found themselves in a similar situation to yours. In your case, the proof is there if you need to address the situation more aggressively — but as a first course of action, while using the most damaging approach is a swift way to resolution, it may also turn out to be much less satisfying.

  • Hey Mark, I think your restraint (mercy) says a lot about you.

    I just shared this with the Clear Medical Network group.  It’s a great one.

  • I hope you’ll post the outcome — if it’s appropriate to do so.  Good luck and thanks for a genuinely thought-provoking discussion!

  • Well, maybe the word will spread and help a bunch of places : )  Thanks!

  • Interesting point about affect on your personal brand. I think when you tear something down,a little of yourself goes with it.

  • Glad to have the support Adam. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Glad you were here to participate. Please come back! : ) 

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  • I’m a fan of trying to resolve my differences in-house until it becomes obvious that it is not achieving results. I see too many people turn a simple and easily-resolved problem into a show of strength of how they can mobilize their online network for war. That’s not exerting influence. To me, that’s bullying. Plus, it’s exhausting to me as a follower on social networks. It’s hard to know when it’s worth getting mixed up in someone’s drama when people are unwilling to distinguish levels of outrage between unsanitary health care facilities and a harried restaurant server having a bad day.

    There’s a whole category of people who seem determined to skip the direct course of conflict resolution for an ego boost and a free appetizer coupon. Chances are usually pretty good that they would have gotten the appetizer coupon anyway if they’d bothered to have a reasonable conversation with the restaurant manager about their complaint, but it’s just so empowering to know they can wreck someone’s day or career by tweeting from the rooftops that their lettuce was not crisp.

    Granted, the issue you faced was beyond the normal realm of this topic, but I’m glad you showed restraint (as I had also said I hoped you would when you posted the question on Google+ and Facebook).

    Based on the hospital response you’ve received so far, I think they’d benefit from constructive criticism at higher levels. Write a letter or email and ask why their patient advocacy tools are allowed to go fallow online with broken forms, etc. Ask what is an acceptable amount of time to elapse to resolve a complaint such as yours. Share the video and photos with them.

    Also, have you asked yourself what a satisfying resolution would like for you?

  • This. This is a great blueprint for action.

  • First, as someone who works in health communication and behavior change, what you saw is appalling and isn’t acceptable.  Had it been me, I likely would have done something similar, all while seething from the lack of response from hospital administration.

    What you didn’t say in your post, but was heavily implied is a phrase I hear and use a lot, “what are you *really* trying to do?”  Do you want to have the situation immediately rectified for your wife?  Do you want to punish the hospital for putting a loved one in a potentially dangerous situation?  Do you want the hospital to change it’s policies or retrain workers?  

    The next question is, “what’s the best way to accomplish that?”  Because we’re immersed in social media day-in and day-out, and know it’s potential, we can sometimes see it as a universal solution.  As the saying goes, “when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    In this case, I think you handled the situation in the appropriate way to accomplish your goals.  

    Personally, though, I would follow up with the hospital administration and see if there might have been another reason for the terrible sate of the room.  Had there been a life-and-death crisis minutes before you walked in that would account for the disarray and trash or was this the result of an issue that is much more serious and needs to be addressed at the policy level?

  • That was the question that I started with but it is difficult to define. How is it possible to know that a message got through and made a difference? I don’t plan on hanging out around the recovery area to find out : )   I always keep the goal in mind but in this case it was not easy. Thanks for the extraordinary comment Shane!

  • The need for follow-up at a higher level seems to be a theme here. I think that is appropriate because I’m not confident this message ever got through to the top. Sharing this blog post and the comment section would be beneficial. If I were an administrator, I would want to know. The overall experience was bad from start to finish. Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

  • Thanks Shane

  • I’ve been pondering this quite a bit lately, so thank you for addressing this in such a hard-hitting and honest way. Just like with every movement, the pendulum sometimes swings too far. While giving a voice to “the people” is so powerful and is a huge agent of change, I’m fearful that **at times** (not all the time) we are starting to swing too far into the territory of sensationalism and “power-tripping”. This is totally natural, by the way, and things tend to balance out and equalize eventually. 

    Because I’ve worked on the other end of companies’ social media accounts (as the brand account and as my own), I’ve seen love and vitriol alike. But in the end, being on the other end has helped me be a better user of social media too. I do voice my personal opinion often, but typically when it’s constructive and there’s a learning angle to it (i.e. don’t do this), but never as “tweet me back and give me free product, or else!” I just think of the poor social media person on the other end of the Twitter account, heartbroken. It’s someone’s mother, brother, daughter. Until we treat others with respect, we can’t expect respect back.

  • In this post… – I sorta dealt with the issue of entitlement as it pertains to “I deserve this and this, don’t you know who I am?” and also asked companies to break the cycle by not dignifying that with a response (or at least not a different one from what others get). I don’t think you should get free stuff by complaining and by perpetuating that behavior, companies do more harm than good. That’s not customer centricity.

  • In this post – I sorta dealt with the issue of entitlement as it pertains to “I deserve this and this, don’t you know who I am?” and also asked companies to break the cycle by not dignifying that with a response (or at least not a different one from what others get). I don’t think you should get free stuff by complaining and by perpetuating that behavior, companies do more harm than good. That’s not customer centricity.

  • Mamie Anthoine Ney

    Very impressed with your story and how you handled the situation.  I am also impressed with the comments.  BTW, did you hear the story about the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office on NPR last night.  Horrifying experiences there, too.  In both cases the root cause seems to be a lack of adequate resources.

  • A concern. You don’t want to hear a story about cutbacks when you’re going in for surgery!

  • Mark,
    I feel you should have posted if for no other reason than hospitals (and other service providers) could use it as a “you never know who you’re dealing with” lesson.  I agree with other commenters that there’s a public-health/safety issue at stake.  Sadly, we sometimes have to take advantage of opportunities to remind people to do the right thing.
    There’s a great book, The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, that chronicles the benefits of checklists in operating rooms (and elsewhere).  Your situation goes far beyond the benefit of a “checklist,” but there might have been a greater sense of accountability had there been such procedures in place.

    Interestingly, I would think your video — shared at the time — might have generated the kind of response you had expected to get, with or without the knowledge of your tens of thousands of followers through various social media.

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