Way back when — like the 2000s — when a crisis hit, hospital communicators struggled to get accurate news and updates out quickly to the right people. Today, there are multiple means of disseminating messages to targeted audiences directly and immediately.

"We have definitely integrated social networking into our emergency management plans," says Andrea Stradling, director of public relations at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif. An Internet strategist works in the command center alongside the public information officer, updating the hospital's Facebook page and tweeting approved updates to the hospital's online community. The hospital uses its own incident-specific hashtag on the hospital's Facebook page and makes it available in any communications so that the public can follow updates.

At Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, disaster drills now incorporate Twitter and Facebook posts as methods of getting information out to key audiences, notes Jason Merrill, supervisor of media relations.

Having faced its share of natural disasters in 2011, LifeBridge Health in Baltimore also has fine-tuned its crisis communications. "We had a hurricane, earthquake and flooding hit our area," says Betsy Haley, communications and social media manager.

Social media has become a primary means for the system to communicate and receive public feedback, says Haley. To make effective use of social media, she says, health care communicators need to think ahead about how they will incorporate the various platforms now available to them.