More than two years ago, a group of teenagers including some Te Awamutu College students contracted measles. The Waikato District Health Board wanted to alert other teenagers in the affected areas about the contagious disease, but the outbreak happened during the school holidays.
"The normal methods of communicating, talking to the school, was not available so we asked ourselves 'how do we get the information out to these teenagers that there is a measles epidemic?'" says Mary Anne Gill, communications director at the DHB.
"We had a bit of a unique problem," she adds. The affected age group is not known for reading the daily print newspaper or watching television regularly. They read the community newspaper but this comes out one a week.
"The only way we are going to do this is through Facebook."
The communications team at the DHB posted about the measles outbreak on every Facebook page that would likely have links with Te Awamutu and Waipa community groups. They posted updates on both Facebook and Twitter, and links to the DHB website for additional information.
Gill says the messages went further -- they asked the students if they have been vaccinated, and if they are unsure, to ask their parents. The campaign helped contain the spread of a measles outbreak.
"We realised social media are actually very powerful tools for public health messages," says Gill. Last year, the DHB campaign was one of eight examples of social media use by public entities and non-government organisaitons cited by Auditor General Lyn Provost.
Since then, the DHB has used social media for several campaigns, including the referendum in Hamilton on the use of fluoride in the city's water supply and against smoking.
"Our advertising budget was limited and so we needed to be very savvy in its use. The vote in favour of fluoridation was nearly 70 per cent, in comparison to our colleagues in Bay of Plenty and Hawkes Bay that did not use social media to the same extent we did," says Gill. "Their 'yes' vote was just over 60 per cent."
"We bombarded social media with 'fluoride is safe' message. We put them on posters, at the bottom of our email. There was the same consistent message in every media," says Gill. "We now consider social media as part of any media activities we take."
So what can other organisations learn from them?
Gill says in the case of the measles outbreak, the target audience -- teenaged students -- do not want a long article about what happens when you have measles.
The message they got was "short and precise".
"If you don't have a vaccination, you are going to feel sick," she says. "Talk their language."
In another campaign, the DHB looked at research that among the biggest users of Facebook were young Maori women. Earlier, public health workers raised concern that members of this group were taking smoking in greater numbers, while the rates for other New Zealanders were dropping.
Gill says the DHB now uses Facebook to spread messages about not smoking during pregnancy, and after giving birth, to not pick up the habit again. "We use social media in a non-judgmental way to assist them."
She says the DHB is working with other agencies like the Maori Health Services and paediatricians in getting this message out. "We reinforce those messages on social media when nurses speak to them."
Last year, the DHB worked with the Chiefs, the local "Super 15" rugby team to promote the flu vaccine. They posted Facebook photos of the players wearing their uniforms while being vaccinated. The families of the players joined the event, which also came out in national media.
The lesson here? "If there is a bit of opportunity to help put out health messaging, have a bit of fun," she advises.
The most important rule on social media is you need to pick up quickly what is said about you, says Gill. "The role of moderator is essential."
Gill says the DHB has a webmaster, Andre Chivell, who monitors their social media sites. "He is forever finding tools to see when we are mentioned, whether positively or negatively."
Staff also have to be empowered to be able to respond to a posting, for instance, about somebody who has been waiting for days to get an appointment with the hospital. Staff can contact the person via private mail to provide them the details and raise it to the department involved.
"If you are going to be there, [you have to] be committed."
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