A Kick in the H1N1 (hiney) – or How Social Media Can Help You When the Message Changes

The communications on the H1N1 (aka Hiney) vaccine in Canada has been a mess.    At first the message was ‘everyone should get the vaccine.’   Then it turned into ‘wait we don’t have enough vaccines for everyone, so it’s only young children and people with chronic illnesses.’   Doctors offices are getting calls all over the place.   H1N1 is over-publicized.   H1N1 is a real threat. And, there is actual evidence that Canada may be doing a better job than other countries at getting the vaccines out.

Some will argue that the problem is poor communication planning.   These problems  are no different from any communication problems.   Key messages change all the time.   Being prepared to change direction is all part of the PR game.   But I bet the people responsible here planned the heck out of this program.   I bet they had a communications plan that could make even the best firms blush at their prowess.   What they did not expect – and should have – is that the public expects faster, more personal and transparent responses to important public messages.   The public expects social media.

Here’s how an advanced social media plan would have benefitted the H1N1 campaign, even after all the messages changed.

Social Media is Fast

Twitter, Facebook, a blog, YouTube and other things like it bring out a message very quickly and easily.    That means the H1N1 message could have gotten out sooner, and offered an open and honest dialogue with the public about the risks, benefits and requirements for citizens to get the vaccine.   All of this could have happened *before* the big marketing push went out and got people all excited, and it could have switched gears as soon as people knew there were going to be problems with the supply.

Social Media Won’t Play “GOTCHA!”

People online like to bitch and complain.   They are skeptical and even jerky sometimes.   But one thing they tend not to do (because they will get their backsides whipped for it) is try and trap someone into a cheap gaffe just to sell newspapers.    If they do, political folks can call them on it easily and quickly.   In Canada, Health Care is political – there’s no end to how social media could have improved the message.

Social Media Builds Trust

The public will always be more receptive to changes in the message if they trust the source that’s saying it.    A clear, traceable road to the process of building, preparing, and distributing the vaccine would have been both inexpensive and indispensible to the messsage later on.

Let Networks Work For You

Having respected Health Professionals onside as the message was getting out would have been equally indispensable, and social media could have done a great deal to help establish those networks.   Networks can clear up questions before you have to, and maybe clarify things that you haven’t really been clear on (hey, nobody’s perfect) in a fair, constructive manner.

Social Media is Timely

Locally, both Capital Health and the IWK have made fair attempts at keeping their public informed about the wait times and availability of vaccines on Twitter.   It’s a modest effort, but an appreciated one, taking advantage of the timely nature of social media to keep the public informed.

Social Media Efforts Receive Feedback

If you are getting it wrong, your network will let you know.   Also, in the spirit of “there are no dumb questions – maybe someone else had that question but was afraid to ask,” the social media folks could have responded to some of those more nitpicky details without bulking up those press releases.

Social Media is Not the Same as Hype

Don’t believe what the media tells you.   Twitter did not ‘light up’ with all kinds of hype about H1N1.   The hype came from media outlets trying to sell news.   And when people told them that H1N1 was overhyped, they turned that into a news story too.   Social Media does not really get all excited about controversy.    People have opinions and sometimes it can be hard to filter through them all, but it doesn’t thrive on the kind of ‘fight or flight’ energy that traditional media does.

Social Media Thinks Long-Term

After flu-season is over, a good social media infrastructure could have been shifted into something more broad reaching.   For example, a communications effort to prevent all infectious disease.

Social Media Appreciates a Good Laugh

Social media give the messenger an opportunity to laugh at him or herself without losing credibility in ways that the traditional media does not.     People respond to joy.    They change their behaviors because of joy – even moreso than they do with fear.  Why not bring more joy into people’s lives?

In short, institutions with millions or billions of dollars in budgets cannot afford to let themselves down by ignoring social media in their communication plans.   At most, what I have proposed here would have cost $100,000 in staff time and expertise.   I am sure the H1N1 campaign had plenty more of that at their disposal and a big mess on their hands to show for it.

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