Lee Aase shared how his team responded to the negative press surrounding CNN’s “Escape from the Mayo Clinic” series

We knew people were going to see the story, we just wanted to give our perspective on it. Lee Aase
In August, CNN released a series called “Escape from the Mayo Clinic” focused on a young patient and her mother’s account of an incident involving the hospital. Communications Director of Social and Digital Innovation Lee Aase was tasked with handling the social media component of Mayo Clinic’s response.

The incident happened in 2017, but it wasn’t until a year later that CNN scheduled a meeting with Mayo Clinic.

The patient’s mother wrote several posts on Facebook in early 2017. “That’s what attracted CNN,” said Lee. Originally, Lee’s team wasn’t directly involved, but they were receiving updates as the story progressed.

About a year later, Mayo Clinic had a four-hour meeting with CNN to discuss the details of the story and to share their side before it was released. The Mayo team knew the story was in the works, and then on Friday, August 10th, they got wind that it was coming soon.

That following Monday, August 13th, the story broke.

Although the team was prepared, the day CNN released the story they realized they would need to allocate more resources — fast.

Lee had been out of the office on the last day of his vacation, but the team jumped into action. “We reviewed the story, and we had to go through the process of getting a response statement posted up on our blog so we’d have a statement to direct audiences to,” Lee said.

There's a time and place to stop being so nice. But then you also need to know when to stop that and pull it back. Lee Aase
“One issue was not having it up soon enough. We knew the story was coming, but we were holding out hope it would be fair. And because of that, we didn’t have a fully developed statement ready,” Lee said.

The team released Mayo’s statement around noon, explaining that the hospital always acts in the best interest of their patients, and that there was more to the story.

Because of the delayed statement release, Lee’s team began to receive an influx of negative comments on unrelated Facebook posts. But among the negativity, Lee estimated that about 20 to 30 percent of commenters were voicing support for Mayo.

The next day, Mayo was named the number one hospital in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

“It was definitely a week of highs and lows,” Lee said.

With the release of some positive news, Lee’s team avoided shifting focus back to their negative press by choosing to not engage with the CNN story that entire day. “We just let the U.S News & World Report ranking be the news on the second day.”

On Wednesday, the team shifted their strategy and challenged some of the claims made in CNN’s story.

The Chair of Mayo Clinic Department of Public Affairs, who had been involved every step of the way — including the original meeting with CNN — wrote a letter that challenged what was in the story.

It's strange how we thought everybody must've seen it, but only 13% of people actually had, and we didn't see a measurable effect in brand preference. Lee Aase
“We were weighing whether or not to let the story die, because it was trailing off in terms of comments, but we felt the need to stand up for our staff, and also to vindicate the belief of our supporters who had commented online and let them know they were right to believe us,” Lee said.

They decided to release the full text of the letter — which strongly pushed back against the claims — that they had sent to CNN.

“We posted our updated statement at the same URL on our news network site as the first response, so whenever anyone went back, they could see what the latest statement was,” Lee said.

He explained how using the same URL for updates to the original statement ensured that any previous social posts about the situation would also point audiences toward the most current information.

Then, on Thursday, Lee was “unleashed.”

His division chair urged him to do whatever was needed to get the true story out.

“We sent out an email to about 7,500 members of our Mayo Clinic Social Media Network,” Lee said.

The email shared Mayo’s perspective of the story, a link to the blog post Lee wrote about it, and a Minnesota Public Radio story supporting the hospital’s side of the story. Members were encouraged to share the links on their own social pages.

Friday, CNN released another piece about how Mayo reported the story.

We said our piece, we stood up for our staff, and there was no point in continuing. Lee Aase
But at this point, the Mayo team knew it was time to back off. With CNN’s massive international digital reach combined with the current political climate, Mayo Clinic decided the best course of action was to avoid a protracted debate with the news source.

“We said our piece, we stood up for our staff, and there was no point in continuing,” Lee concluded.

In the aftermath, Mayo Clinic did a survey to gauge the national reaction to the story.

“It’s strange how we thought everybody must’ve seen it, but only 13% of people actually had,” Lee said. Of those who were aware of the story, 65% believed Mayo, 15% believed CNN, and 20% were undecided. “And we didn’t see a measurable effect in brand preference.”

Lee shared that Mayo Clinic’s 150-year-old reputation, and their handling of the situation, were key factors in overcoming the negative press.

The story didn’t extend much further than that single week in August. “Even though it was pretty big story, there weren’t any new developments — and there wasn’t any reason to have new developments — so it didn’t get brought back up again,” Lee said.

Lee shared that it’s been a learning experience for the entire team.

“In our after-action review, we realized we needed to assume the worst,” said Lee. He explained that Mayo had received negative press before, but the nature of this story was different. “In this case, with the nature of the family situation and what our providers dealt with, it just wasn’t in our scope of consideration,” he said.

In our after-action review, we realized we needed to assume the worst. Lee Aase
Lee stressed that Mayo had a much larger cross-functional team throughout Communications involved in responding to the issue, and that his team’s role was to represent that good work in the external social media arena.

He also shared how important it was that Mayo Clinic’s social pages had built large enough audiences to push back against such a high-profile story. “That’s the importance of what we do on social. Otherwise, we would have had no way of giving our side of the story.”

For other hospitals who may be faced with a similar situation, Lee emphasized the importance of staying true to your values.

The Mayo Clinic team always made a point to put the well-being of the patient first — they never mentioned the name of the patient or her mother in anything they published.

He also shared that it’s important to know when to challenge the validity of a story and when to leave it alone. “There’s a time and place to stop being so nice. But then you also need to know when to stop that and pull it back,” Lee said. “We knew people were going to see the story, we just wanted to give our perspective on it.”

Lee Aase has been a member of SocialMedia.org Health since 2016. You can follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.