State Health Agencies Increasingly Adopt Social Media, but Brace for Pay-to-Play Future
State public health
departments markedly expanded their use of social media from 2011 to 2014,
viewing it as an effective, low-cost means to reach their audiences. But the
agencies are also preparing for social media platforms to increasingly charge
them to access their audiences.
In January, the National Public Health
Information Coalition (NPHIC) reported that 82 percent of state health agencies
use both Facebook and Twitter, versus 44 percent in August 2011.
illustrates the growing importance of social media,” says NPHIC Communications
Director Brad Christensen. “People are realizing the value of its immediacy.
With the rise of smartphones, social networking is a finger tap away.”
Although state health agencies have famously used social media in emergency
responses, such as when Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast in 2012, health agencies also use them to publicize health
promotion information that news media are less likely to cover.
rarely see stories about diabetes or injury prevention in traditional media
channels,” Christensen says. “Newspapers are going out of business, so social
media gives health departments a means to reach directly to the public without
having to go through a news editor.”
Delaware Department of Health and
Social Services (DDHSS) Health and Risk Communication Section Chief Emily
Knearl says that social media has provided a dual benefit for her department.
On the one hand, social media platforms allow them to reach Delawareans
without their content being filtered through a reporter. At the same time,
many journalists follow them on social media and will follow up with the
department on its announcements to cover in news stories.
Sandow, public information officer at the California Department of Public
Health (CDPH), says another benefit is that social media “allows CDPH to keep a real-time pulse of how health
impacts people’s lives and also helps us determine the success of our message.”
However, state health agencies say that they’re beginning to
prepare for the future of social media: platforms charging users to get
information in front of their audiences.
“Social media has been a
low-cost and potentially broad-reaching opportunity to build community in
customer-chosen channels, but we’re experiencing a sharp move toward a
pay-to-play social space,” Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) Web and
New Media Manager Jennifer Tweedy said via email, pointing to Facebook’s promoted posts system and Twitter’s business advertising feature as examples. “This shift has changed the
online social landscape and can’t be ignored by brands that want to stay
relevant and engaged with their online communities.”
Relations Officer Leslie Poland predicts that state health agencies will soon
need to provide more money for social media.
ads now require you to pay to get in front of your audience. If this is
successful, you’ll see more social media trying this charging approach,” says
Poland. “We need staff to stay on top of how to reach audiences and that
To increase their digital footprint and keep costs down, state
health agencies may also want to investigate other social media outlets or
explore other new media options. Christensen cites the AZ Dept. of Health Services Director's Blog, started by former ADHS Director
Will Humble, as a successful approach.
“Arizona has almost stopped
sending out news releases because Will Humble’s daily blog entries were so
often picked up by traditional media,” he says.
For health agencies
looking to improve their digital outreach in a rapidly changing field,
Christensen and Arizona, California, and Delaware’s public health agencies
offer the following tips:
Strategies for Health Agencies to Improve
“Post on social media daily, or almost daily. To
build a following, you have to provide consistent content.” – Brad
“Use a conversational tone, and ask yourself ‘would
this catch my attention?’” – Leslie Poland, DDHSS
“Decide what success
means to you. It probably isn’t simply the number of followers for your brand.
As you gauge the types of online interactions that are most beneficial for
your online community and brand, craft ways to better use those touch points
to communicate key messages and engage with your growing community.” –
Jennifer Tweedy, ADHS
“Create working relationships with program staff
and develop a sense of their social media knowledge and needs. In some cases,
this requires explaining the benefits of social media to your staff.” – Scott
“Add visuals when you can. If you use Facebook, use
pictures and graphs. Pictures tell a story and draw in readers.” – Brad
“Write press releases so they can be chopped up
easily into tweets. Take a paragraph and turn it into a sentence that someone
is going to be interested in.” – Leslie Poland, DDHSS
evaluate social media analytics to help determine which posts have a high rate
of engagement.” – Scott Sandow, CDPH
“Don’t let fear of negative
feedback keep you from reaching your online community. Negative
sentiment is an opportunity to clarify, educate, and be human. " – Jennifer Tweedy, ADHS