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The new amplifiers

Divina Paredes | Jan. 22, 2014
Lessons from the Waikato District Health Board on using social media to deliver lifesaving messages.

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."


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