By Loewner, Samuel M.
Policy & Practice , Vol. 70, No. 2
Social networks have become ingrained as a daily part of our lives in today's culture. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have continued to expand their reach while new services, like Google+, have launched and grown rapidly in their own right. Social media experts believe that it's time for governments to harness these tools--using the private sector's successes and failures as a guide.
These new Web technologies provide you with an unprecedented opportunity to reach and be reached by the populations you serve. Health and human service agencies have started to leverage social media as a communication tool. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which rely upon your ability to communicate clearly and frequently with program participants, can utilize social networks and blogs to interact with them. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, operates the @HealthFinder Twitter account, which promotes wellness to its more than 150,000 followers.
Much focus is placed on how social media is transforming the way Americans communicate with each other, but health and human service agencies should become more aware of how these same tools can reach and assist underserved populations. At the same time they need to understand the risks and investment required to make social media a useful tool. And, even though agencies and programs may differ, there are some guidelines, principles, and procedures that ensure social media initiatives will work as intended.
Current and Potential Uses for Social Media
If we look at the different methods for reaching people, it's easy to identify the places where social media can be useful.
* Most health and human service programs create and distribute outreach materials, including mailed letters, brochures, and packets. Social media can be used to provide general information and frequently asked questions, so that program beneficiaries will be informed and able to find answers, even if they misplace these communications or move.
* To make outreach more interactive, allow citizens to ask questions through social media. As an example, a blog that includes a comment section is an ideal way to enable two-way communication online. Information is presented in an easy-to-read manner and citizens are able to provide moderated feedback to the agency and other readers.
* Many health and human service programs use Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems for communicating via phone, but some beneficiaries prefer communicating online. Social media is a good platform for reaching this population. Additionally, programs can follow the example of many customer service departments in the private sector that utilize online communication tools like Twitter to provide new areas of efficiencies for call center operations. Twitter allows consumer? to ask general questions online by sending "tweets" to the company's Twitter feed. The company then provides a response on Twitter that not only reaches the source of the question, but posts the answer for all consumers to see. Imagine if our call center burdens could be reduced just by directing users to ask general questions through Twitter!
Important Considerations Before Using Social Media
Improving communication strategies with the citizens you serve is a high priority, but it does come with some risks that must be addressed. Therefore, it's critical to approach social media with a cautious eye.
1. Social media is built upon technology, but it's fundamentally a communications solution. It can be tempting to place the responsibility for social media policies and procedures in the hands of technologists within your agencies, but while technology departments can be critical allies in establishing a working social media initiative, most successful social media initiatives are led by outreach or customer service staff, as they are the most familiar with the audience. …