In the midst of the global response to swine flu, it seems uncanny that only a few weeks ago a group of invited guests and speakers were sitting in the headquarters of the American Public Health Association to examine the full range of challenges, opportunities, lessons learned, and best practices in the development and application of strategy to social media and public health communications (click on image to enlarge).
Federal agencies including the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, and nonprofits such as The Red Cross presented their experiences with social media. Representatives from media organizations including National Public Radio and DC FOX 5 News talked about how social media were changing their approach to news gathering and reporting during emergencies.
A key objective of the Thought Leaders Round Table for Strategy Development in Social Media and Public Health Communications was to differentiate strategy from “tactics” or immediate decisions and actions that tend to drive the use of social media and public health communication in both traditional public health (e.g., diabetes) and emergency public health response. It was on this point that I had the opportunity to contribute to the gathering with a talk on social media as a strategic shift in risk communication (transparency, audience engagement, collaboration) or simply a new tool for message dissemination (regular readers know where I and others come down on this issue).
The discussions in response to panel presentations were augmented by smaller work group discussions. Among the issues noted were the benefits of social media for increasing the situational awareness of response teams. On the negative side was the potential to threaten or impede response by conveying inaccurate or inappropriate information (such as when the senders do not appreciate the implications of some of the information they are reporting). An exemplary practice we heard was from The Red Cross who rather than simply push information out, use social media to pull information from volunteers during times of crisis and have trained over 150 of them to use social media tools in emergency situations.
The conference produced no breakthrough ideas or methods; a report from the 4 working groups should be available soon. One of the central issues that did emerge was the need for a guidance document for how to do an evaluation of social media.
The results of a recent survey by the APHA of social media practices (pdf) among Federal, state and nonprofit agencies (n=542) were also made available at this meeting. Among the findings were that 43% of the responding agencies currently used social media – social network sites, blogs and SMS (text messaging) are the most popular ones. Among the obstacles to using social media that were endorsed by 50% or more of the respondents were other competing priorities, staff time/capacity, level of familiarity with the tools and organizational culture.
The critical POV of all the participants was that social media was no longer a choice; it was a necessity in real-time risk communications (and what happens during the recovery period when the crisis has passed was barely addressed during the day). Many of the presentations were of the ‘show and tell’ variety and every Federal agency had a story. That was the good news. The challenges these people confront within their own agencies to using social media are daunting, most notably lawyers, being blocked from accessing social media sites at their offices, lengthy clearance procedures (I particularly liked the example of a now stream-lined FEMA process that still could not compete with the fellow standing at the flood gauge tweeting continuous updates on the rising Red River) and ill-advised postures by senior administrators to ‘avoid creating panic’ by NOT disclosing timely information (as opposed to enlisting people to help which tends to be the overwhelming response of people during emergencies as disparate as the landing of the US Airways flight in the Hudson River and the floods then ravaging the upper Midwest). Yet, participants agreed there was no turning back the clock on social media – it has achieved a solid position in all communicators’ consciousness about what they should be doing. But again, that ‘should’ often focuses on trying to extend the ‘command-and-control’ and message inoculation strategies – thinking of social media as new communication channels rather than as new ways to think about what they are doing, tools to engage in conversations with people and shifting their thinking to recognize that the people formerly known as the audience may often be better sources of information than the officially sanctioned ones. And there was also expressed the idea that in public health emergencies and other crises people are no longer audiences, but active participants in the drama that is unfolding.
[Image via Google News Timeline]