March 12, 2012

David & Goliath

Only one hospital served the small community.

In a river town in Appalachia with high unemployment and even higher numbers of uninsured folks, I’m sure it was sometimes hard for the hospital to make a balanced budget, much less a profit.

But my sympathies for its struggles turned into fury when the hospital announced it was closing the pediatric unit. Sick kids would have to make a two-hour drive to the nearest metropolitan hospital. Two hours.

When a community stops valuing its children, the future is bleak.

Angry momma bear thrust into action. Guided by the principle of communication as mission, I worked with a handful of women in the community. Within a couple of hours, we started a Facebook page. Caring4Children provided “a place for respectful engagement -- a place to ask questions and post answers, to share our concerns about the implications of losing the pediatric unit, and to build a community of advocates for our children.” (The page is no longer active – but the group has morphed into a permanent nonprofit for children and their needs).

We posted an invitation to the group on our personal Facebook pages. Within an hour, we had 50 likes and tons of outraged comments. By day’s end, there were hundreds. I sent press releases to the local media with a link to Facebook. When the papers printed the link as forum, the webpage exploded with interest.

Buoyed by the groundswell, we decided to host a town hall at the local Episcopal church (I had some connections …) We invited the hospital president, chief operating officer, and public relations staff, as well as all of the pediatricians. Initially hospital officials chafed, hem hawing about whether they would attend. But the Facebook page grew and became a rallying cry for the community. The TV stations and local newspaper planned to cover the town hall – forcing the hospital officials to attend.

Communication is mission.

I facilitated the meeting, setting specific ground rules for discussion, allowing questions and comments from both the hospital officials and concerned community members. About 150 attended, with 147 strongly opposed to the move. (The last three were the hospital leaders).

Sometimes we know intellectually the power of communication tools (think Arab spring) but we don’t examine how they might effect substantive change in our local communities.

The president, along with the hospital communication staff (which I thought completely botched the whole situation) failed to grasp – and harness – the power of social media until it was too late. At a very grassroots level, public opinion was mounting, creating strength in numbers and passion.

Within a week of the town hall, the hospital announced a change in plans: it would keep the pediatric unit open.

Communication is mission.