Yesterday I was part on an expert panel to discuss trends and innovations in communications and their implications for Federal health communication programs held at IQ Solutions. Part of my assignment was a short presentation based on an earlier one I gave at George Washington University. Jean Wooldridge also presented on 'Radical digital literacy: Consumers as producers.'
The invited audience consisted of HHS health communicators including people from five Institutes at the National Institutes of Health. From past reactions I have received on social media from people involved in both federal and state health programs, I was especially interested in the participants' reactions and comments during these 3 hours of presentations and discussion. Here are my notes:
- An immediate response was that moving into places like MySpace and YouTube (two examples I used in my talk) meant that even more time and investments would be necessary to develop effective messages for these new channels. One participant who works in the substance abuse area talked about the difficulties they were having with pro-marijuana and drug use people hijacking their sites and messages, including on-going debates with editors of Wikipedia over the slant being given to some drug entries. The notions of transparency and audience-generated content as being realities of these new media were recognized and accepted by many people in the room, but moving from linear, one-way communication models to more networked models of communication is going to be as difficult for them as it is for many companies and agencies.
- The question was raised about what the role of the Federal government should be as a source of health information in this new world? Can it be effectively positioned as an arbiter of 'truth' and science? Or is it going to be one on many (hundreds?) of voices competing for people's attention and trust? What does the trend of democratization of information portend for communications planning and health communications and social marketing programs? How will social networks play a role in assessments of credibility and trustworthiness? Monitoring this new environment (blogs, social network sites, Wikipedia) was also pointed to as a new task for these offices that would require attention.
- The issue was also raised about how to 'push' or direct people towards health information once it was made available in social networks and other types of social media (for example, a specific health campaign's materials). We began focusing on the need to switch the orientation from an 'outreach' to an 'inreach' approach to health information and behavior change dissemination that emphasizes discovery of information when and where people are interested in it and looking for it.
- A concern was expressed by researchers that submitting investigator-initiated grants to the NIH to conduct research with new media and technologies has been met many times by rejection by peer review committees whose members are not conversant with these technologies. It was felt that this lack of expertise and experience on these review committees (whose members determine to a large extent whether grants are funded or not) may imperil opportunities to understand and best utilize these new media in health communications and behavior change efforts.
- Some participants also shared how they have been tapping into thought leaders from the commercial world to introduce ideas and new technologies to the executive level staff at some Institutes. I believe a shared feeling was that this type of cross-fertilization and exploration of new ideas had to become more commonplace at NIH. As one participant put it, the NIH is renowned for its curiosity and research into new ideas and approaches to health and disease; this attitude needs to be equally applied to issues in health communications, behavior and new media.
The session was not intended to come to conclusions, but to raise and explore issues about the changing world of communications and how they may affect efforts to improve people's health. I don't believe we came to any conclusive next steps, but it appeared that everyone left with new ideas and an openness to exploring how they might harness the power of the concepts and technologies inherent in social media.