Public Health and Social Networking: It’s Relationships, Not (Just) Releases

oldmediaIn 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.

bhrWe, 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:


6 thoughts on “Public Health and Social Networking: It’s Relationships, Not (Just) Releases

  1. This felt like a lot of information. It was all good information though. I liked the use of your images, they conveyed your message well and the mixed media was a nice touch. I also really like the part about respect. i think sometimes those who feel like they are “leaders” in health often forget they are offering a service that people have to utilize to be effective, they are not longer just patients, they are clients that have choices in who they use for their healthcare or other needs.

    I think you could do a spin off post on how those outside of health do this well. Sometimes we need to look to other industries to find a good model for things we are not exceptional at yet. You alluded to this and I think it could be a whole other blog.

  2. Cameron, I really liked your message that people want to interact with the messages they are receiving today, and also that respect is a big deal. I was looking at some public health meme tumblrs this week, but they were exclusively ways for public health professionals to blow off steam and rant about non-public health people. I get that this type of outlet is necessary (the work we do can be hard and frustrating), but if you are trying to cultivate relationships with others (members of the public, peers, etc.), it can be hugely damaging for them to discover that you hold them in contempt, or even that you have “liked” someone who does. This betrays the trust they put in you and shows a lack of respect. Considering that the Internet is forever, and that it is almost impossible to completely hide your personal self from your professional contacts, it behooves us to keep the meaning and importance of respect in mind.

  3. This was a very meaty blog, with a lot of interesting ideas, but I almost want to say it bordered on too much information for one posting (I, like the general public have a short-attention span). I got a little distracted by the dinosaur reference and was initially unclear where the blog was going, based on the title. If you did decide to do an edit, I think it could be trimmed there. I was very intrigued by the idea of social media as a backlash to unidirectional messaging/manipulation, which got me thinking that perhaps it is even more manipulative now that people believe they are participants, or selecting topics, when really they are just self-selecting into the optimal “sell.” They are doing a lot of the marketing research by providing “likes” and locations etc. It is interesting to perhaps capitalize on this perception that the consumer/message-receiver perceives they are more in control than they really are. I am inclined to think there needs to be a careful balance of messaging and relationships when using social media for public health. Unlike a lot of other topics that come up on facebook, or other platforms, there are facts in health that need to be conveyed and corrected. This does not really allow the “customer is always correct” mentality, though it does not mean that corrections have to be disrespectful, as you pointed out.

    Though I think it is a losing battle and the ship has sailed and all of that, I somehow hold out hope that healthcare will not continue down the path of “consumerism” with the business models under which many organizations are running. Much as I wouldn’t read on-line and claim to know how to fix my car, I hope that at some point public health is able to help dispel the myth that patients can read on-line and suddenly know as much as their providers. I think the customer-mentality is supporting the idea that the general public knows what is “right” or “safe” because they read about it on-line, thinking a diagnosis or treatment is like a review of vacuums in Consumer Reports, where such-and-such remedy got good reviews so that is what they too should have/do. I digress a bit, but I guess my point is that I hope public health helps pull health back to some objectively and does away with the idea that just because everyone has the right to make their own decisions about health (mostly) does not mean that they actually possess the information or training to make good decisions. This is a very un-PC, un-patient satisfaction view, and not at all in vogue, so I’m not holding my breathe.

    I agree very much with your tips and might add that keeping information simple is also a good idea. There can be resources or links to more details, but the initial message or conversation is best left as straightforward as possible. Like you said, reconnecting for reinforcement is probably just as important as initial contact. Really good post, with lots of stuff to think about!

  4. You raise great points in this blog! I especially like that you pointed out that in this day in age people want to participate in the messages they receive. More and more in public health we are trying to understand behavioral economics and how those values and choices effect people’s health and we are learning it is so much more about a co-creation/co-design process!

    I also think you touch on an extremely important point that so much of social networking is about relationships and not as much about pushing your agenda or publications. The relationships are what actually support the greater goal of keeping people healthy. Great call to action at the end of your post to encourage people to leave comments and create those relationships between the writer and the audience!

    Maybe try playing with tying in your reader and using your authentic voice by condensing your words to highlight the key points and takeaways. Well done!

  5. Hilarious post about the ways of old media! Loved the analogy of dinosaurs and consumers essentially being “prey”. Great use of links to more information. I really enjoyed your tips to building relationships through social media, it was a nice perspective and really well written. I would have enjoyed more succinct and simpler language as it was sometimes difficult to read. I think formatting key points and takeaways might help with that as well.
    Overall though I really enjoyed this post in diving deep on the way relationships can be built through social media, but also how they can be ruined! Thanks Cameron.

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