Robert Watt advises managers not to engage with ‘toxic’ social media

‘Political media world is very unforgiving, very irrational,’ senior health official says

 Department of Health interim secretary general Robert Watt (left, pictured with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe) said social media was a ‘valuable tool’ for communicating information  but he discouraged managers in the health service from commenting and debating on online platforms. File image: Aidan Crawley/For The Irish Times

Department of Health interim secretary general Robert Watt (left, pictured with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe) said social media was a ‘valuable tool’ for communicating information but he discouraged managers in the health service from commenting and debating on online platforms. File image: Aidan Crawley/For The Irish Times

 

Health managers need to be “very careful” about the “toxic nature” of social media and the “absolutely astounding” abuse on it, Department of Health interim secretary general Robert Watt has said.

Speaking to a health conference on Wednesday, Mr Watt said social media was a “valuable tool” for communicating information about the Covid-19 vaccination programme or the health service but he discouraged managers in the health service from commenting and debating on social media.

“Use it to get out information but that’s it - don’t engage, don’t follow the comments because it really is very damaging for people’s mental health if they get into that vortex of reading and the commenting on what people are saying,” Mr Watt said.

The senior civil servant told the annual conference of the Health Management Institute of Ireland that social media was a “very damaging place” particularly for leaders who run organisations when “personal resilience” was critical.

He urged them to “keep away from a lot of the noise” on social media, and said managing social media properly was increasingly a key part of “trying to manage your own resilience”.

“We live in an incredibly toxic media-political environmental now with an incredible amount of misinformation and it’s very, very difficult,” he said during a discussion with HSE chief executive Paul Reid and Tallaght University Hospital chief executive Lucy Nugent.

Mr Watt said that improving performance in the public and health service required change which could be difficult and that this required a culture of accepting and learning from mistakes.

This meant balancing risk-taking, “accepting that things won’t always go well” and supporting staff when they didn’t. This was “the biggest challenge” in the public and health service, he said.

“The political media world is very unforgiving, very irrational,” he said.

Mr Reid said the public service had to operate on “a mentality of getting 70 per cent right” because striving for “100 per cent precision” delays action “too long” during a pandemic.

Mr Reid, a regular Twitter user, said social media was “a very good way of getting messages out to staff and the public” but it was important not to read or take seriously abusive commentary.

“It has a value that we have to manage very safely for people. I can particularly see how people can be really hurt and damaged by social media because it is a very toxic space out there,” he said.

Mr Watt said Mr Reid used social media “very successfully”. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and others also used it to communicate a “clear message” on the Covid-19 vaccination programme or about public health messages but it came with risks, he said.

“I am not on social media - I don’t intend to [get on it] - but I can see it’s a very valuable tool for communicating information but I wouldn’t engage in any debate on social media,” he said.

The Irish Times reported on Monday that Mr Watt passed on analysis carried out for Mr Donnelly to the head of communications at the Department of Health in January showing how the minister was not being mentioned on the department’s Twitter feed.

The theme of the conference that Mr Watt and Mr Reid were speaking at was “resilience and renewal” and supporting frontline healthcare workers to deliver a better service.