A social media win on Abington merger

Michael B. Laign (left), president and CEO of Holy Redeemer Health System, and Laurence M. Merlis, CEO and president of Abington Health, discuss on July 13 how their health systems could form a partnership. On Wednesday, the two organizations said they would not be forming a partnership.
Michael B. Laign (left), president and CEO of Holy Redeemer Health System, and Laurence M. Merlis, CEO and president of Abington Health, discuss on July 13 how their health systems could form a partnership. On Wednesday, the two organizations said they would not be forming a partnership. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

Foes of Abington's move joined online.

Posted: July 23, 2012

Score a big one for social media.

When plans to merge secular Abington Memorial Hospital with Catholic Holy Redeemer Health System collapsed Wednesday, many credited a social-media blitz.

Citizen activists, who objected to the merger for various reasons, chief among them the possibility that it might curtail doctors' ability to provide abortions. organized meetings via e-mail, battered news outlets with information, hailed e-messages on doctors and administrators, fired salvos of Twitter tweets, and ran an incredibly potent Facebook page and Change.org petition.

It's a bracing lesson, on a local stage, in the power of social media to create community around an issue and ratchet up pressure on key players - in this case, the members of the Abington board and its president and CEO, Laurence Merlis.

"It's amazing to me just how fast word spread," says community activist and public-relations whiz Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein, very active on the Stop The Abington Hospital Merger Facebook page and Twitter account. "You have to wonder, if we went back to the late '60s, to the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement, what protest would have looked like if we'd had these tools."

It began with a flesh-and-blood meeting on the morning of July 7 at Meg Shakransky Sheketoff's house in Elkins Park. About 20 people, dismayed and energized by news accounts in The Inquirer and other venues, had set it up by e-mail. On purpose, they invited people who already were well connected, who brought ready-made networks of contacts with them.

"These were people most of whom did not know each other previously," says Ellen Toplin, who resigned her position on the Abington Health Foundation board July 14. "Call it a super-quick community. It began as a diverse, grassroots group that bonded around an issue."

The two crucial steps: creation of a Facebook page and an anti-merger petition on Change.org.

One member of the group, Rita Poley of Elkins Park, was already at work making the Facebook page. "I read about the merger plans in The Inquirer and was very upset," she says. When her daughter, Nomi Saunders, urged her to do something, "I got a friend to help me set up the anti-merger page. I shared it with all my Facebook friends, 30 to 40 people at most. And from there, it just grew." As of July 19, the page had 1,433 "likes" and 77,000 views a week, with more than 2,000 posted comments from 22 countries.

Facebook played another indispensable role: heading off misinformation. David Toub, an obstetrician and an adjunct faculty member at Albert Einstein Medical Center, says that "when people posted statements or information that wasn't correct - such as the way or reasons abortions are performed, or the way obstetricians like myself respond to complications with wanted pregnancies - there was a doctor who could quickly correct that statement."

The group agreed not to ask their respective networks to make multiple petitions, but rather to generate a single one.

"Change.org, riding on the back of Facebook, is really harnessing a lot of citizen activist energy right now," says Seth Elliott, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Engagement Media Technologies in New York. "With e-mail and social media, you get a full-on press."

Sandy Fryer, a member of the core group and program vice president of the Philadelphia section of the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW), says, "We had the meeting in the morning. We had the petition posted by the afternoon. We stood over [group member] Stephen Weinstein's shoulder as he typed up a petition."

Lisa Kelley posted the petition at Change.org. "Nobody else in the group knew technically how to do it," she says. She's a crafter and runs her business, Milkshake Crafts, totally online at sites such as Etsy. "We posted the petition on the Facebook page, and each of us posted it on our personal Facebook pages."

With what Kelley calls "awesome" speed, friends sent it to friends who sent it to friends. "I can't think of any other way we could have gotten it out there so quickly and have so many people sign it."

That was the stunner. "Within a day, we had 1,000 signatures," says Fryer. "Within 5 days, 5,000."

E-mail assumed huge importance. "We e-mailed letters to the Abington board," says Fryer; the NCJW provided drafts, as well as e-mail addresses of public officials. "I think you can say the board was pretty much deluged," says Toub. E-mail thank-you notes went out to doctors who opposed the merger. Meetings and events were publicized via e-mail. "We don't have to wait for snail-mail any more," says Fryer.

Elliott sees "a recursive pattern, where traditional media first highlight an issue, then citizen activists turn to the Web for action. This tends to work best in an intensely local issue like this."

"I think the doctors on the Abington staff were energized to stand up to the board by the support they saw in the community via e-mail and the Facebook page and the petition," Poley says. Toub says, "Doctors felt they were part of a community, with the same concerns. It was like the way the Arab spring spread."

Don't forget Twitter. Ezekiel-Fishbein says, "We never had a huge following, but the crucial thing was who was following us: the interest and media groups, NARAL, ACLU, and they were retweeting us all over the place, just growing the network." She sent several tweets a day addressed to the Abington board, and organizing tweets to followers: "If you want to keep in the loop about community meetings, email stopthemerger@comcast.net. . . . "

"Twitter is where you see the real speed of the Net," says Toub. "I found it a particularly helpful and rapid way to keep up with developments." Ezekiel-Fishbein says she may have been the first to hear the big news on Wednesday. She instantly tweeted: "WE DID IT! THE MERGER IS OFF. HOLY REDEEMER JUST INFORMED THEIR DOCS AND BOARD MEMBERS ARE CONFIRMING."

"I think we got the message out even before the staff at Abington knew," she says.

There's some talk of media professors wanting to study this case. What made it so powerful? A community-conscious and activist community, with a high concentration of concerned, committed people who work in industries such as law, medicine, public relations, and journalism. Such people already tend to be informed, networked, and at ease with e-communication. And then the tools.

"The power of the movement scared Abington," says Ezekiel-Fishbein.

"I think the petition had a huge impact on the board," says Kelley.

An exhausted-sounding Poley says the core group may work together on another issue soon. As for now, she's "ready for my 15 minutes to be over." But first, a party on Thursday night: "We're getting together at the Kitchen Bar in Abington. I don't even know who's coming. I put the announcement up on the Facebook page. We'll see who shows up."


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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