Blog

Digital Communications Lessons from a Medical Emergency

Tim Shaw

User Experience Director, Forum One

I recently had reason to observe a medical emergency, involving critical intervention in an ER before transport to an ICU. While the event was obviously intense, I found my mind stepping away and dispassionately noticing all kinds of things about the care the person was receiving, and how the men and women in those medical environments administered it.

I suppose it was some sort of mental reflex to distract from what was occurring in front of me. As I reflected on these observations in the days after, I realized that there were lessons, even in this very different environment, for those who are using digital communications to achieve impact. I’d like to share these thoughts with you.

It Takes a Team: Make Sure You Have One

I am sure the experience varies with people, facility, and levels of crisis, but I think we have all seen the TV medical drama view of an ER room with the yelling and chaos and, often, one big-ego doctor dominating the scene. My experience was not this way at all, even as the stakes increased. Yes, there were differences in experience and expertise in the room, and it was clear that some individuals made key judgements and others did not. Everyone there, though, played an acknowledged, defined, important role, and they worked together for a common end. It was a true team.

Many of us have been on teams that work well and also on teams that did not. Too often, teams focused on digital communications fall into the latter category. How often have I heard “we’re really silo-ed” from clients? How often have you said that? These issues hold organizations back. Good digital communications requires the same kind of team work. Researchers and program staff have topical expertise, and we need them to generate a great deal of content. They don’t often know, though, how to present it, market it, or manage it – and they shouldn’t. A team needs to form around content early in the creation process, with collaboration across roles and departments that considers how the end product will be used, how it will be presented to allow that use, who it needs to reach, how it will be promoted, how its success will be measured, and so on. There should be expertise in each area, and all need to play their roles from the outset and on an ongoing basis.

Know the Roles…but Don’t be Limited by Them

In the ER, everyone knew his or her role. The nurses self-selected to taking turns giving CPR, identifying needed resources, or tracking the timing of events and interventions. The respiratory therapist focused on “bagging” (breathing support). The doctors identified interventions and led the team. Some of that was set. A nurse, for instance, would not start barking out commands to give a medication. Some of it, though, was not. The person I was with “crashed” again after several minutes of stability. Different nurses took different roles, in this second case, again self-selecting to where they were needed.

In digital communications, we also need to have a similar balance of definition and flexibility. Let researchers, for example, hold primacy on what can be validly stated and what caveats need to be in place. Let content marketers hold sway in conveying messaging and let designers determine how to draw an emotional connection to a piece of material. At the same time, though, allow ideas to flourish throughout the team. A researcher may have a good social media idea. A writer may have a good solution to presenting data. Don’t be so rigid that ideas get squashed. People can play different roles in different cases, and a product may be the better for it.

Make the Metrics Known and Work Towards Them

TV does a reasonably good job of conveying the presence of metrics in ER and ICU environments. Team members were constantly providing vital sign numbers – pulse, heart rate, blood oxygen level – or asking for them. There are a handful of clear ones many of us know and a bunch more that were new to me. Everyone knew what the numbers were, what values were good and bad, who needed to know them when and how urgent the information was, and so on. Just in case, they were on screens everywhere, often with rich data visualization of graphs and bold numbers.

Think this is too much for digital communications? In level of urgency – maybe. But in overall spirit? Absolutely not. The teams I describe above need to know what they are trying to accomplish and how it will be measured. Everyone should know audiences, desired (reasonable) traffic rates, good email click-throughs, key media services to hit, etc. As content is published, they need to be watching these, managing efforts to bring about desired results, testing and updating presentation as needed, and so on. Urgency may come into play, even here. If you are publishing a signature digital product, should you know ASAP that your traffic is not what was projected? If something is key to your mission, should you not be identifying and fixing a user experience flaw in hours, not days? Probably no one on your team is shouting “gimme a retweet, STAT!” but key stakeholders should be looking at the right measures regularly and acting accordingly.

Lay Out the Plan, and Make Sure Everyone Knows It

The ICU I saw is in a teaching hospital, so twice a day there are rounds. Aside from the teaching that occurs, this is a clear time for everyone – the doctors, the nurse on duty, an array of support staff – to decide what the plan will be for each patient for the hours ahead, discuss any issues, and make sure responsibilities are clear. It also was useful for updating interested stakeholders, e.g., the patient’s family.

At Forum One, we have seen great success in adopting the daily stand-up meeting and ongoing task backlog as part of our Agile process. Organizations can do this, even if they don’t use other aspects of Agile. Have a regular session where team members and stakeholders meet briefly to discuss plans, responsibilities, blockers, and so on, and keep a running list of what needs to be done overall. It doesn’t take a great deal of time, but can bring valuable focus and build collaboration.

Train and Plan for Key Cases

The reason so much of what we saw in the ER went so well is that these professionals train and drill all the time. They have to act well on reflex, and practice is the way to achieve that.

Digital communications rarely involves the need to be able to act with the same level of urgency, but common cases come up. It would benefit teams to think about this cases and practice, on some level, for them. Have plans and checklists for major content launches, and rehearse schedules and tasks by role. What needs to happen in advance of a board meeting – can some regular tasks be pulled together and dry runs done to make these events less chaotic? Think about, as well, the possible cases where there would be urgency. How will you react if a major news event occurs in your space (and what would such a news event be)? What will you do if your executive director or a key board member takes seriously ill? What are communications needs around a major change in the funding stream (positive or negative)? These things happen, and we know they will. Get prepared and be ready.

Remember: It’s JUST a Website

Obviously a medical emergency is one of those periods where one re-evaluates life’s priorities. Trauma to a person close to you will do this. It is trivial to say this, but remember this before bad things happen. In our world of digital communications, we sometimes can get worked up about things that seem really important, but just aren’t. As my colleague Brian Pagels once said while we were practicing having difficult conversations with clients, “at the end of the day, it’s JUST a website.” Try to meet deadlines. Focus on quality and do proper quality assurance (QA). Meet commitments. Do good work. When mistakes happen, though, stay reasonable. It’s just a website. The situation could be worse.

Written By

Tim Shaw

User Experience Director, Forum One