Going Viral

How the CDC is Using Social Media to Improve Public Health

By Michelle Alletto, MPA
Senior Manager, Public Policy & Government Affairs, AMCHP  

Facebook has over 400 million users and there are over 50 million Tweets posted to Twitter every day. With access to such a vast audience, it is no wonder that public health agencies are beginning to recognize the advantage of social media. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are certainly leaders in this arena. In 2009, CDC web buttons and badges had over 2.5 million clickthroughs, and its website, CDC.gov, had 800,331,892 page views! 

Even before H1N1 hit last spring, CDC had built a variety of web and social media tools to interact with the public and collaborate with partners. CDC had already established a presence in the blogosphere and could be found on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. For its 2008-2009 seasonal influenza campaign, “Get Vaccinated,” CDC featured important health information in blogs, invited people to visit CDC.gov by using web buttons and badges, and designed health eCards for people to remind their friends and families to go and get their flu shot. 

The H1N1 outbreak and the salmonella peanut butter recall were two major events in 2009 that moved CDC’s health messaging systems to kick into high gear. The H1N1 outbreak has required real time situational updates, the reinforcement of prevention information, and specific vaccination guidelines to reach non-traditional audiences — all easier and more effectively achieved with social media.  

Throughout the ongoing H1N1 outbreak, the number of CDC’s Facebook fans has increased as have their Twitter followers. In fact, Twitter has been one of the most effective tools for CDC in providing timely situational updates. CDC has also hosted successful webinar and blogging activities, one in particular engaging parents of children with special health care needs. During this bloginar, one of the parents participating posted real time Tweets — multiplying even further the reach of the information provided. This is an example of what Holli Seitz, one of CDC’s social media specialists, describes as one of the great powers of social media — enabling and empowering the public to become health advocates — hopefully influencing their peers to take positive action.   

In his own blog, CDC’s Dr. Jay M. Bernhardt articulated the importance of employing social media to achieve public health aims: “The effectiveness of our public health interventions to reach and impact target audiences is directly related to the level of audience participation in the intervention planning, development, and implementation. Whether we call it public participation, public engagement, customer centricity, or another name, establishing and ensuring deep audience engagement is a fundamental part of effective public health.”

Of course, pioneering the new territory of social media doesn’t come without challenges. CDC has to constantly innovate to effectively reach the people most in need of health information. With all of the social media tools available, CDC must be strategic when deciding what types of media to use, whom to target, and when. CDC considers two types of audiences when implementing their social media efforts — those that know and use CDC.gov and those that haven’t. CDC has a strong web presence but recognizes the advantage of using social media to capture new audiences. All the while, the CDC eHealth Marketing Team is working alongside internal subject matter experts to ensure that the information is provided quickly, without sacrificing the accuracy that CDC is known for.   

State health departments stand to benefit from CDC’s expertise in social media — either by using CDC’s best practices and guidelines to build their own social marketing campaigns or by tapping into CDC’s vast amount of public material to enhance their web presence. In difficult budget times, it may be hard to imagine investing in new social media tools. But there are low budget ways to utilize social media — some tools are even free. Ms. Seitz recommends first identifying which audience your health department is trying to reach. From there, decide what activities fit within your budget and what staff time will be needed to launch a successful social media activity. Outlets like Facebook and Twitter are very low cost or free, but do require a commitment in staff time and are maximized when an agency commits for the long haul, in order to build a following and make it a successful venture. Hosting a webinar series or starting a blog may require more substantial content development. 

For health departments that can’t afford to create their own tools and content, CDC has a wide variety of tools available for use by partners that can help to reach their constituents and communities. CDC offers syndicated content, such as peanut related recall information, that can be posted on other websites at no cost. Syndicated content is updated and updated content automatically appears on the partners’ website. . CDC also has a range of web buttons and images in a public health image library which can be posted to health department websites to promote important messages about influenza prevention and more. For more information on CDC’s social media campaigns, visit here.