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Highly regulated companies tiptoe into social media

Linda Melone | Feb. 15, 2013
healthcare providers, financial services firms and other companies in highly regulated industries are taking full advantage of social media, even though they're awash in rules. Here's how they do it.

Like other utilities, Consumers Energy is regulated by various state agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other entities. The company has a digital team made up of Youngdahl and two other employees who strive to acknowledge customers' remarks within an hour. They do this via a special email account that each team member can access.

The team members also post content on social networks, and when they discover a customer concern, they notify people in the company who can address the matter. "Even if it's two or three people talking about a subject, we always forward it to the appropriate people," says Youngdahl.

A recent social media conversation, for instance, alerted the digital team to a problem with the wording on the company's website that made it difficult for customers to log in. Youngdahl relayed the posts to the company's Web team and IT department and showed them a report on the trending topic and related keywords. The Web and IT teams then made the necessary changes.

"The conversation on that topic died down within a week after we made the change," says Youngdahl.

Consumers Energy primarily uses social media for customer service and to post updates about outages during storms. But as it reaches out to customers via social media, the company must ensure that it protects their privacy. For example, says Youngdahl, a customer might reveal his account number during an online conversation. When that happens, she says, "we delete it immediately and take the conversation offline."

Healthcare: Patient Privacy First

"As a healthcare service, our No. 1 concern is protecting our patients," says Susan Solomon, vice president of marketing and public relations at St. Joseph Health, a 14-hospital healthcare provider serving California, West Texas and Eastern New Mexico. "It's mainly about privacy issues, but there absolutely are ways to stay within the regulations and make social media work. You simply have to set boundaries up front."

St. Joseph's social media goals include reaching out to people to carry on conversations about their health long after they've left the hospital, Solomon says. For example, the subject of a recent St. Joseph Facebook post was, "How do you use superfoods?"

The organization also uses Facebook and Twitter to drive users to a landing page where they can sign up for a newsletter, make an appointment or otherwise securely interact with hospital staffers. For example, a recent breast health campaign included posts on the hospital's Facebook timeline that directed women to a landing page where they could schedule a mammogram.

Physicians also use social media to relay credible information to patients who may be searching the Internet for medical information only to find bad advice from unreliable sources.


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