Social Media and Swine Flu

Swine FluThe Boston Public Health Commission, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have been using social media to provide swine flu (H1N1) updates, geared mainly toward young people who “are particularly vulnerable… but might not respond to public health messages conveyed through brochures, television news shows or other traditional channels,” according to iHealthBeat.

From Twitter to YouTube to blogging and even text messaging, these agencies are trying to reach their target audience in new ways. And it seems to be an effective strategy.

Stephen Smith, reporter for The Boston Globe, reports that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health currently maintains three blogs on swine flu (all in English, Spanish and Portuguese) that average 2,500 hits a day. These blogs are not just for relaying information, but for interacting as well. Moderators review comments and answer questions regarding the most important issues that the blogs’ readers bring up.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has launched podcasts in six different languages — English, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Spanish and Vietnamese — to customize its message for different audiences.

More than 15,000 people subscribe to receive swine flu text message updates from the CDC. Here’s a sample text message aimed at protecting infants from swine flu: “Babies under 6 mos. can’t get flu vaccine & are at high risk 4 complications. If U care 4 or live w/infants, get vaccinated to protect them. CDC 800-232-4636” (The Globe).

Additionally, the Boston Public Health Commission has tapped into the power of viral video, with a funny rap music video, called “Talkin’ ‘bout the Flu:”

The 22 year-old Ethan McCoy, one of the stars in the video, explains to The Globe why he thinks this strategy has been effective in reaching young people:

When you think of the Boston Public Health Commission, you probably think of a suit, very strict, very straight to the point… When you loosen it up, and people realize the people relaying the message are from their community, they’re going to sing it to themselves over and over… This statement embodies what successful social media communication is all about: leveraging your organization’s credibility in a voice that appeals to and connects with your target audience, through the platforms and media they use most.

I want to close with one potential challenge that emerges when using social media to provide real-time health and medical information: the information you’re conveying has to be accurate, without exception. As Smith points out, the need to pass information along in real-time, as it becomes available, has to be “balanced against the need to remain faithful to scientific knowledge.” Otherwise, people could get hurt.

SOURCE: “New media spread the word on H1N1,” 12/11/09
SOURCE: “Officials Turn to Social Media To Inform Young People About H1N1 Flu,” 12/11/09
Photo courtesy of The Artifex, used under its Creative Commons license.

About David Reich

David Reich is co-founder and CEO of SixEstate, blending a background in traditional marketing and public relations with over 5 years of experience managing hundreds of online marketing campaigns for all kinds of organizations -- from small businesses and nonprofits to public companies. David is responsible for keeping SixEstate and its clients at the forefront of the rapidly evolving search and content marketing landscape. Connect with David on Twitter, Google+ or via email.


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  1. David, another good post. I visited the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Public Health Blog to see if they were really newsblogging and responding to comments. The blog is a nice example of a newsblog. While it would benefit from graphics and a more disciplined publishing schedule, it’s not just brochureware.

    You say the advice must be accurate, without exception. But the exception is the comments, where readers pour out their issues concerning H1N1, and bring vitality to the blog. These comments are often answered by authoritative staff members, or lead to future stories addressing the issues readers sound off about most. Nice use of technology!