12 Days of SMEM: Boston Water Main Break

One of my most favorite public health social media properties is the
Boston Public Health Commission’s Facebook
. With multiple posts per
day on everything from healthy recipes, to tips on healthy living, to
Board of Health decisions, posted in both English and Spanish, that
page alone is just about as best practice-y as it gets.

But we’re talking emergencies here, and well, Boston had a doozy a
couple of years back. A massive water main broke in May
causing a “boil water order” to be issued to more than two million
Massachusetts residents. Now, those of you in emergency risk
communication know how confusing a “boil water order” can be, so
imagine having to issue it to millions of folks in rural, suburban and
urban areas, all of whom were potentially in immediate danger from the
water they use to drink, cook and clean with.

The first tool BPHC reached for? Social media. With frequent updates
on both Facebook and Twitter, they were able to break free of the news
cycle and push unfiltered updates and breaking news to residents of
the area, and—just as important, I say—people who didn’t live in the
area, but care about someone who might be affected. According to one
review by a Tufts University
BPHC also utilized Twitter not only to push information on the
situation out, but also to field questions, redirect misinformation
and quell rumors. True two-way communication with vast swaths of the

While I’m focusing on the social media aspect of the Boston response,
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this outreach was but one
medium in a constellation of media, ranging from police bullhorns to
carefully orchestrated press conferences. It is but one tool in the
box, and one that Boston Public Health utilized extremely well.


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