State Health Departments and Social Media: Challenges and Opportunities

Aug 10, 2011, 7:02 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

The National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media kicked off in Atlanta, GA this week with more than a thousand health communicators, public health researchers, and practitioners from all levels of government and private sectors. With a heavy focus on digital and social media, the conference is exploring how these tools can be leveraged to improve health.

One session today focused on the different ways social media can be used strategically – and opportunities for improvement. Rosemary Thackeray, PhD, MPH, from the Department of Health Science at Brigham Young University, discussed a study on how state health departments across the country are using social media.

The study included a content analysis of state health department social media platforms, identified through the National Public Health Information Coalition from February through March 2011. Thackeray said the objective was to determine how social media was being used, and whether social media was simply one more channel to distribute the same kind of information.

The findings? 27 states are using Twitter; 17 have hopped on Facebook; and just 4 are using photo-sharing social site Flickr.

The study found that while many states had developed and maintained social media accounts, uptake in terms of followers and “likes” was generally low, and interactivity and engagement was even lower. Thackeray emphasized that states should aim to engage their communities through spurring conversation.

Though engagement was an issue across state social media accounts, there were several highlights. Alabama consistently topped the study lists on counts like number of Facebook posts and tweets. Among their Facebook posts, 72% were “liked” by fans.

During the Q&A session, attendees noted challenges to social media use, such as social media sites being blocked from employees’ computers. One consistent plea was for more guidance on how to effectively use social media, and to develop policies particularly when it comes to engagement and guidance on how to handle things like negative or hateful comments.

Diane Brodalski from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Electronic Media Branch offered several CDC resources in response, including:

Other resources mentioned include:

Thackeray and her team concluded that state health departments are still in the “early adopter” stage of the social media field, and it will continue to evolve – but departments may have a great opportunity at this point in time to engage their audiences.

UPDATE: Thanks to our commenters for sharing further resources, including this database of social media policies from all levels of government and private entities.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.