In the beginning, dinosaurs roamed the earth and infiltrated many transnational media companies. Thus was the antediluvian broadcast nature of old media, where information flowed one direction to the consumer: an individual with a message for the public encapsulated the message into a formal release, and through existing channels could funnel it through media such as radio, television and print. Occasionally people and pets were eaten, depending on the company, the message and the number of tyrannosaurs on staff at that particular media enterprise.
This is (largely) a joke, of course, but I picked the dinosaur metaphor on purpose primarily to point out that the interaction between messager and recipient in the old media days could — with only a smidgen of hyperbole — be described as basically predatory: a message was being pushed upon you, presumably to the benefit of the messager, and possibly not to yours. You were prey, your eyes and ears being a resource to be harvested, and not a participant. Under those circumstances, the backlash against this sort of top-down messaging probably seemed inevitable as new, bidirectional media tools emerged. Today, people want to participate in the messages they receive.
Old habits, like dinosaurs, die hard. As new media sources such as social networks have gradually become more central, old media types have been trying to impose the same top-down distribution structure upon them, and often failing. Despite public health’s best efforts to be progressive in terms of policy development, many public health organizations and particularly local health departments have an extremely limited approach to new media. There are lots of reasons for this inertia, not least of which being existing bureaucracy and review requirements, and a belief that being active on social networking sites is not time well spent.
We, as public health professionals, need to change that view. New media in general, but social networking in particular, is about relationships, not merely about pushing releases. We now have a public that can directly interact with us about the message we’re sending (sometimes whether we want them to or not), and that has the power to even alter that message through reblogging, retweeting and hashtags in ways we might not anticipate. A poorly regarded public health entity will be on the wrong side of this very powerful weapon of perception, and the way we combat that is to have a public that feels they are a part of our mission. By strengthening our relationship with them, we can also strengthen the resonance of our message with them, to say nothing of serving them better.
In our schematic at left, four basic steps emerge in any successful relationship-building campaign: we connect with a target audience, we inform them, we interact with them about the information we provided, and we reinforce it through a variety of methods. Implicit in this cycle is that we aren’t just giving them a static release: we’re talking to them about it and getting their buy-in as a community. Curiously enough, these are the very same principles of network engagement that companies and corporations reaching out to clients try to do as well. Even though our reach has a different idea in mind, many of the same concepts apply.
Here are some other tips:
- When you connect, make sure you are involved with the appropriate audience. Your associations really do matter to your effectiveness. A computer hardware company is (comparatively) unlikely to have much headway with people shopping for shoes: not that people shopping for shoes don’t buy PCs, but that’s not where “the money” is. Likewise, in public health — even though potentially everyone is our audience — many targeted messages resonate better within a smaller, more focused group, and you want your messages to be associated with “good folks.” Find the right people to connect with and ask to start a “relationship” with those folks and organizations by following them as the first step. Many will reciprocate, but even if they don’t, it shows others you are selective and your message is worth something to you.
- When you inform, be timely. Social media sometimes involves a lot of luck: if you’re right on top of an issue when that issue is hot, you have a golden opportunity you must not squander. Public health and in fact health in general are hot topics with things like the ACA, vaccination policy and chronic disease on the front page. If you’re on an issue as it breaks (see also: hashtags) and someone with reach notices, you’re about to get a lot bigger — and expand your relationship with them and others, because you are demonstrating you prioritize the same concerns they do.
- When you converse and reinforce, be interactive. How much fun is it to have a conversation with someone who never appears to listen to you? Just like “life,” if someone tells us our post was meaningful to them, you can grow the relationship by acknowledging their sentiments. Follow hashtags (including and especially the ones you’re trying to launch) and interact with those using that hashtag as positive reinforcement. Of companies who follow up with their clients’ concerns on Twitter, 83% of those clients who previously complained now regard the interaction positively — and more importantly, over 50% of their clients expected that they would get a reply. Even if you don’t run a governmental public health agency directly serving the public, there’s still a lot of potential here!
- No matter what, be respectful. Publicly posting shrieking screeds against people, even dumb people, just makes you vulnerable and can turn off people on the fence about an issue you want to reach them on. Abusing your followers with lots of posts that are uninteresting to them or frankly spammy will poison the relationship you’ve been working on. Worse still, a lot of damage can be made to your social media brand in a very short time if you make an enemy of someone. While the customer may not always be factually correct, the customer is always “right” — something we need to remember in our agencies as well — and thus they always deserve our respect. There are many good guides to social network etiquette, including factors as simple as timely topics and just using spellcheck and good grammar, which apply to us especially in health because of the critical issues we broach. We think nothing of expecting “please,” “thank you,” firm handshakes and good presentation in person from someone who wants to connect with us — our audience here expects the same level of respect.
Relationships in real life are hard work, and they’re hard work in the new social networking paradigm as well. But relationships are what allows our message to transpire a simple press release and make the issue about people. Healthy people is the goal. Healthy social network relationships can be part of that process. It’s time to make those dinosaurs into fossils! Connect with us here in the comment section.
Before we sign off, here’s how one large health department in southern California uses social media for health: