Social Business at Kaiser Permanente: Using Social Tools to Improve Customer Service, Research and Internal Collaboration

Social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook have helped Kaiser Permanente — the nation’s largest nonprofit health care provider — grow its positive media mentions close to 500% in the last five years, says Vince Golla, who oversees the organization’s external digital reputation.

Reading Time: 15 min 


Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
See All Articles in This Section
Like what you're reading?
Join our community

5 Free Articles per month, $6.95/article thereafter. Free newsletter.

$89 $44/Year

Unlimited digital content, quaterly magazine, free newsletter, entire archive.

Sign me up

Vince Golla, director of digital media and syndication, Kaiser Permanente

As director of digital media and syndication for the national public relations team of Kaiser Permanente, a $44 billion hospital and health plan group headquartered in Oakland, Calif., Vince Golla helps train and direct the organization’s PR people and physicians to use social media smarter.

From counseling the people behind more than 100 Kaiser Permanente Twitter accounts to analyzing social media to see what customers are happy and angry about, “the foundation of my work is to help folks understand that when they are engaging in a social media conversation on behalf of our brand, it is intergalactic and travels at the speed of light,” Golla says.

He has been deep in this world for over two years. Golla joined Kaiser Permanente in 2005 and was the editor of its corporate news website, the Kaiser Permanente News Center. In that job, he was charged with getting relevant articles, slideshows, videos and press releases into one place on the web. He also was managing a number of social media channels, including the organization’s national Twitter handles, Facebook page and YouTube channel.

“I don’t want to say it was an avocation, but it was almost like a second job,” says Golla. When the company’s vice president of PR, Holly Potter, decided to dedicate a direct report on her team to the task of “digital reputation,” Golla’s secondary job became his primary one. That was in December of 2009. While Golla handles the company’s digital reputation on the communications and PR side, he has a counterpart, Keith Boswell, who handles the digital reputation in the marketing, advertising and brand spaces.

Golla spoke with David Kiron, executive editor of Innovation Hubs at MIT Sloan Management Review, about how Twitter helped the company find an eventual audience of over a million people for an event that was only attended in person by a couple hundred, how the company’s internal intranet IdeaBook is changing the way employees communicate and how Facebook helped reassure customers during a blackout that the company was open for business.

Tell us about the ways you’ve been able to use social media for customer service.

We have made tremendous strides in using social media tools to improve our response rate. We have a member services handle on Twitter, @KPMemberservice, which is in a trial state with the California Department of Managed Healthcare, and it has not only rendered fantastic customer service to people since it was formed and launched in May of 2010, but it has also proven to be a really great piece of our — for lack of a better term — social media early-warning network.

We’ve come at social media from the standpoint that many hands make light social-media work, and we have encouraged all of our member services social media agents to let us know promptly when they see something that just doesn’t look right, so that we can figure out if this could be a threat to our reputation and, if so, how we should deal with it.

What is an example of an “early-warning network?”

There was a blackout in San Diego in 2011 that had more than 2 million people knocked off the grid. We know that of our almost 14,000 likes on our Facebook page, about 400 of them are in San Diego or Orange counties [in California], the areas affected by this blackout. We were able to very effectively use our Facebook page throughout the night to update our members and let people know that our medical center was still online 24/7, that we had emergency backup power, that certain facilities had been affected and we were rescheduling procedures, that we wanted our members to go to this page on our website,, to get the latest information.

We had people in San Diego and Orange County commenting on our Facebook page literally through the night — 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m. — throughout the outage. There was a connection there that we wouldn’t normally have in other channels, and it was absolutely essential and absolutely provided great customer service.

How have you used social media as a customer service research tool?

An executive in our organization came to me several months ago with a theory, based on personal experience, that he did not think that we were doing the best job in the world at parking for our members. He had this idea that we as an organization were not spending enough attention on how we construct, organize and orient parking spaces around our facilities so that it is easy and convenient for our members.

He basically asked us if there was information in the social media space that would either help him prove or disprove that theory. So what we did was measure Twitter over the course of 30 days, specifically searching Twitter for references for our organization and parking.

It wasn’t a completely easy thing to do. For example, with our name, Kaiser Permanente, everybody in the social media universe uses the shorthand “Kaiser.” That means that our search would also turn up Kaiser beer, Kaiser roll, a rock band called Kaiser Chiefs. It required a little work to sift the wheat from that chaff.

If you describe a bell curve of conversation where one end is very positive and one end is very negative, generally what we see is that 60%, 70%, 75% of the conversation is pretty much right in the middle, neutral. Tweets like, “I am at this location” or “I’m going to Kaiser to get my flu shot.” Then, on the ends, ideally you have more positive than negative, and more very positive than very negative.

Kaiser Permanente uses Twitter to gauge customer reaction to specific initiatives, such as valet parking.

In analyzing 30 days of parking-related tweets, what we saw on that bell curve was that the negative was at a level of about twice the negative as the general bell curve. We were able to show this executive that he was right: that indeed, the conversations about parking with our organization at that moment were twice as negative as general conversation about our brand. We were able to pick out specific things that people were talking about, like valet parking. Many of our facilities had introduced that, and it was generally greeted very positively, but there were significant negative tweets about it, about why in the world would somebody have valet parking at a medical center, and whether it was a wise use of funding.

Now, whether to have valet parking is an individual, facility-by-facility response, and our general point of view is that anything that we can do to make access to our care easy and convenient is the right thing to do. But, more to the point, we were able to use social media research to show this executive that indeed there were conversations happening about our brand specific to parking, and that they were more negative than just general conversations. That was information he was able to then use to continue conversations at his level.

I love that example. One of the things we see is companies using Twitter to give longer legs to information — that conversations can reach more people over a longer term. Have you had experience like that?

Yeah, we have absolutely shown that using social media tools, specifically Twitter, has exponentially increased our positioning in the world of innovation. There is a body of work out there in the innovation space that we as a leading health care company, leading health care IT organization, want to be a part of. And we’ve been able to use Twitter and measure conversations, measure attendance at virtual conferences.

We see social media tools as a great way to showcase our experience in the world of health care IT. For instance, when we opened our Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health in Washington, D.C., we used it in the first few months to convene events and discussions about health care. Using tools like TweetReach, we were able to measure audiences of more than a million people who were involved in those events virtually, when in fact a couple hundred people attended that event at the Center in person.

Do you look at numbers like that to measure your success with social business?

Sure. In addition to looking at things like TweetReach, we can show that the number of positive media mentions about our organization have grown close to 500% in the last five years. Much of that is because we have created really great strategies regarding our presence in the world from the standpoint of PR, so that only some of that can be attributed to social media, obviously. But yes, we spend a lot of time measuring our presence in the PR space and we spend a lot of time in the social media space measuring our audience based on a project or an event or an endeavor.

You’ve described your role as a “consulting job.” Who did you go talk to, and what kinds of interactions do you have with folks who might not have understood the power of social media?

We understood pretty early on that in an organization of 180,000 employees and physicians, it was not going to be immediately possible or practical to govern social media conversations really, really closely. We reasoned, then, that the most logical approach was to have somebody at my level be a consultant for the communications and PR space, to articulate what the best practices are for us and how operating in social media conversations is aligned with our goals and objectives.

We very specifically said and still maintain that it’s more important to not “have a social media strategy,” quote unquote, and that it is far more important to have a communications strategy and then determine how social media tools can help. That has kept us out of situations where people were chasing social media as the shiny object.

In some ways, the foundation of my work is to help folks understand that when they are engaging in a social media conversation on behalf of our brand, it is intergalactic and travels at the speed of light. It may affect our brand very little on one side of the country and very much on the other side, but it still has an effect on our brand — positive, neutral or negative.

The other part of my work is to talk to people about a kind of tricky idea: that social media conversations are by definition very public, and when we engage in them, we have to engage with the idea that we are ready to discuss the good and the bad in that topic, and that if we’re having a conversation about a specific topic, we have to demonstrate that we as an organization could change or adapt based on the results of the social media conversation. That doesn’t mean, obviously, that based on a single social media conversation we’re going to change our business model. But we have to show that we could change based on these conversations.

If people are going to use social media tools on behalf of our organization, they have to be able to answer yes to all of those: Yes, I am willing to, on behalf of this topic, on behalf of our organization, discuss the good and the bad. Yes, I’m willing to have direct one-on-one conversations about this topic. Yes, I’m willing to have those in a way where I know that they are public and that I am representing our organization appropriately. And yes, I can show that our organization can change or adapt based on those conversations.

Once you get past that, then it comes down to talking about which tools will help us achieve these goals and objectives, and do them in a way that is both promoting of our brand but also protecting of our brand.

Who’s in the room when you make a presentation about these ideas?

If I’m doing a presentation in one of our operating regions, it’s probably the communications executive leader in that region, his or her direct reports, and then some of their direct reports who are specific to social media.

Are you trying to create alignments across regions in how social media is used? What kinds of regional variances are tolerable?

We’ve encouraged our operating regions to proceed with a little — more than a little — bit of autonomy in the social media space. For instance, all of our operating regions have their own Twitter handles. A number of our large medical centers have their own Twitter handles. In all, more than a hundred of our PR professionals, executives, and physicians who are interested in the space have their own Twitter handles. We have encouraged them to use those to promote our brand where they are comfortable.

Our national, central social media presence is the largest and most mature of our presences. At the same time, I think that we can create our largest audiences in the social media space when we use our national presence in conjunction with our regional presences. Our operating regions can and do create very significant and very valuable audiences in their regions.

Let’s talk about IdeaBook, Kaiser Permanente’s internal social media collaboration platform. How does it fit into the company’s larger social business strategy?

IdeaBook is a very robust platform which supports blogs, Wikis, chat. It is a convener of virtual groups, cross-functional virtual work teams. It is where we are able to have robust conversations behind our firewall about how we do business as an organization.

It supports video and allows us to not only share videos internally but to embed them in any Intranet page. That’s been very valuable for me, to make sure we aren’t creating hundreds of YouTube channels. YouTube is a very robust video-sharing platform, but not every video in the world should be on YouTube, and certainly videos that are created for an employee audience should not be delivered primarily on YouTube. Having that capability in IdeaBook is absolutely essential.

How has the company gotten people to adopt it? There often is resistance to changing a way of working.

I’ll give you a tactical example. Holly, my boss, feels so strongly about the use of IdeaBook that more than a year ago when we were doing our annual goals and objectives, every person who had a discrete area of work on her team of 30-plus people did an annual PR plan and sent it to her. And she reviewed all of them, but then she posted all of them on our IdeaBook group, rather than sending them back by e-mail. She went back to each of us and said, “I have reviewed your plan, I have posted it on IdeaBook. If you want to see it, read it on IdeaBook, because I’m not going to e-mail it to you. I also am encouraging the entire team to comment on it.”

It’s been a real advantage to collaborate in that space. We’re sharing information as freely as possible, and we’re not losing information in e-mails, offline conversations or offline documents.

That’s really interesting. Are you using e-mail less in your internal group work because of IdeaBook?

I believe we are. I don’t have data to support that, but anecdotally, it certainly feels to me that I receive and send less e-mail because we are doing work in IdeaBook.

I think, though, that where the really compelling value in IdeaBook comes from is in convening audiences across our organization that wouldn’t otherwise exist. People who are on IdeaBook are engaging in conversations in their area of expertise, but they’re also engaging in conversations that are perhaps outside of their area of expertise but well within their areas of interest and curiosity.

From my position as a steward of our digital reputation externally, IdeaBook is a particularly valuable tool, because it creates a safe, effective proving ground for anybody in the organization who wants to use social media tools externally. We have more than 29,000 employees and physicians that are now using IdeaBook, and I can have conversations with people about whether or not they are ready to use social media tools externally by asking them about what they’re doing in IdeaBook, what sorts of successes they’ve had there.

As a health care organization, how does Kaiser Permanente handle all the privacy concerns about confidential information when opening up these public forums to so many employees?

I don’t want to say that it’s easy, because it’s not. But I will say that we as an organization are governed by a single seminal document called the Principles of Responsibility. The Principles of Responsibility are very clear about that topic, that member data is absolutely sacrosanct and private. I think that it’s really a matter of being just as careful with that content in the social media space as you would be anywhere else.

I think when you do a good job of teaching people that, showing them just how omnipresent social media is, they get it. They know that private data really has no place in that conversation. With extraordinarily rare exception, you don’t see that sort of exposure. It’s something that I’m constantly worried about, but I think that I’m worried about it to the same degree that everybody is: That our private data must remain private, and your responsibility to do that, while it is the same across any media, is absolutely critical in social media because of the size of the audience you can convene.

I find that where people remember those two truisms, that social media travels at the speed of light and that it’s intergalactic, they tend to do a better job of keeping private data private. Social media is really just this amazing extension of where we’ve been going for the last 200 years, from the telegraph to the telephone to television, radio, the worldwide Web. It’s a logical extension of all of that, with an exponential increase in the depth, breadth and speed of communication.


Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
See All Articles in This Section

Reprint #:


More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.

Comments (6)
How to Get Big Success With ‘Little Data’ | Strategy Consulting | Management Consulting | Global Advisors
[…] Golla explains in the MIT Sloan Management Review, a Kaiser executive once told him that he did not think Kaiser […]
How to Get Big Success With 'Little Data' - Small Business Today
[…] Golla explains in the MIT Sloan Management Review, a Kaiser executive once told him that he did not think Kaiser […]
Pretty cool. I never thought to use social media for customer service this way.

The True Value of Social Media | Blu Maya Digital Marketing Agency
[...] Permanente is an interesting case study in building a social business capability by using social to improve customer service, internal collaboration and market research: Social [...]
My links of the week (weekly) « lateral thinking
[...] Social Business at Kaiser Permanente: Using Social Tools to Improve Customer Service, Research and I... [...]
Social Business at Kaiser Permanente: Using Social Tools to Improve Customer Service, Research and Internal Collaboration « Serve4Impact
[...] team of Kaiser Permanente, a $44 billion hospital and health plan group headquartered in…Via Share this:LinkedInTwitterFacebookStumbleUponEmailTumblrMoreDiggRedditPrintLike this:LikeBe the [...]