By Jay M. Bernhardt, PhD, MPH | March 25, 2014
There's a revolution in the ways people communicate and it’s affecting every one of us. You’re participating in it right now by reading an article onscreen that probably came to you through email or a web search, rather than reading a printed product that arrived in a paper envelope. The use of new media has transformed our personal lives and the way we work, and it’s also changing the work of state and local health departments.
Communication is a critical foundation of the work that health departments perform every day. To be effective, they need to talk with and listen to their diverse communities and partners in order to engage their constituents on important health issues.
Traditional, or “old media,” still plays an important role in the work of most health departments. They may use press releases, news conferences, interviews, reports, posters and mailings to disseminate their information to various target audiences. But most departments also see that “new media,” including online and mobile resources and social networks, has become an essential part of effective public health.
New media is most effective when you use established and proven best practices. There are techniques that can increase traffic to your site and ways to encourage people to respond to your posts or share them with others. A well-designed new media program can boost a reputation or extend a message. There are also approaches that are less likely to attract the community’s interest, thus failing to promote important health messages.
As more health departments begin to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, their work is literally and figuratively all over the map. Some departments present well-designed, sophisticated content that leverages the power of new media and effectively engages the community. Others are currently simplistic and even old-fashioned. Static messages that previously would have been mailed or tacked to a bulletin board get posted on Facebook, or tweeted, or added to a website.
Why is there such a range of practice? One reason is that very few staff people in health departments have received formal training in the application of new media to health promotion. Many organizations move into this arena without the benefit of new media expertise. Additionally, the staff and resources needed to research, test and share messages—as well as awareness of new media best practices—are often limited.
Regardless of their sophistication, I believe that every health department using new media, at whatever level, deserves credit for trying. One of the best ways to continually improve and grow new media programs is to look at examples of health departments that have had success with their efforts.
For example, the Arizona Department of Health Services is a leader in drawing attention to their YouTube channel. With over 5 million views, they’ve done an excellent job of creating original content, sharing relevant content from other sources, and engaging with their target audience.
This is an important principle for resource-strapped health departments: if you can't afford to create your own content, you can share high-quality content from other sources to increase awareness and boost people’s interest in and use of your site.
Another leader is the Alabama Department of Public Health, which has developed a mobile app that brings together all of the social media feeds from their various divisions, provides health news and alerts, includes links to people and resources, and offers general wellness tips. It’s free to download at the iTunes store or Google Play.
In the past, developing an app would have been too expensive for most health departments. Fortunately, costs have dropped considerably in recent years. For example, it is my understanding that the production cost for the Alabama Department of Public Health app was under $10,000.
Although I have been focusing on health departments in this column, people across all sectors of health care and public health are looking at, and often struggling with, effectively incorporating new media in their work.
It’s important to remember that new media is a tactic, not a strategy. Think long and hard about your goals, your target audiences, and what you hope to accomplish strategically. The answers to these questions should drive how you use new media.
To build skills and confidence, seek out training and learning opportunities. There are excellent resources out there, many of which are free. Participate in webinars and seminars. When you go to conferences, look for workshops and trainings addressing the use of new media.
Copy best practices from others—not only public health resources and health departments, but more advanced commercial companies and enterprises. How do they develop interest and buzz about their products and services? These same principles often work for health messaging as well.
To see a well-integrated use of new media for health care service and promotion, check out the Mayo Clinic. From their home page, you can click on the icons for Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and look over the type of content they offer.
Here are three more excellent resources that can guide you in learning more about current best practices with new media and help you develop a practical and powerful strategic plan for your own department or organization.
Jay M. Bernhardt, PhD, MPH, is internationally recognized for his expertise in the application of communication, marketing and media to public health, health care and medicine. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Digital Health and Wellness at the University of Florida, and also serves on ETR’s Board of Directors. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find him on LinkedIn.