12 Days of SMEM: Association of Public Health Labs

As the last week of our 12 Days of SMEM starts, oh boy do I have some
treats for you. I am more stoked about this week’s articles than I
have been in a good long time.

First up is an organization that I’ve partnered with in the past, the
Association of Public Health Laboratories. Now, you can image in how
important labs are to public health emergency response. Frankly, there
is very little we as emergency planners and PIOs can do without
talking to our friends in the lab first; seriously, step 1A or 2 in
the process. So to learn that they’ve not only integrated social media
into their communication strategy, but have embraced it as a way to
bring the labs to the public, well, you know they’ll be on my list of
organizations that we can all do a better job emulating.

As a way to keep from burying what is probably the most important part
of this whole post, I’m listing their contact information right here
at the top. Visit the, interact with them, learn from them:

The following is a post pulled together from Scott Becker, Executive
, Jody DeVoll, Director of Strategic Communications, Tony Barkey, Senior Specialist, Public Health Preparedness and Response, and my personal favorite, Senior Specialist for Media, Michelle Forman (Michelle, you’re the
best!) The post was written in reply to the following questions:

  1. Social media is becoming an important part of the work we do in
    public health. When did you/your organization start using it? Why?

  2. The 12DaysofSMEM project is being used to identify best practices
    in social media and public health emergency response. Do you think
    that social media can be useful in responding to public health
    emergencies? How?

  3. What is the next step in social media use during public health emergencies?

And, without further ado:

APHL launched our social media efforts in early 2010. The original
goal was to engage our members (public health laboratorians) in online
communities. We quickly realized that many of our members, who are
government employees, are blocked from social media on their
government issued computers and mobile devices. We quickly
redeveloped our strategy and shifted our focus to the general public
and educating them on what the public health labs do by providing
news, resources, stories from the field, etc. There are a lot of
reasons why the public should be aware of who the public health labs
are and what they do. Primarily, we want the public to understand
that there are people who are working hard every day to identify,
track, and stop the spread of dangerous diseases.

We recognize that more often the public is turning to social media for
instant news. Scott mentioned that he went to Twitter first when he
heard about the recent shooting at Virginia Tech. We all went to
social media during the earthquake last summer. It is much more
effective than news sites because it is instant – it is up to the
second accounts of the event. For APHL’s purposes, social media
enables us to sent short bursts of information in a flash to relevant
partners (first responders, emergency managers, partner organizations,
the press and the public) across jurisdictions.

Since we launched, there has not been a major public health crisis
(luckily) but there have been incidents—various foodborne illness
outbreaks, the BP oil spill, the tsunami in Japan, and vaccine
preventable disease outbreaks to name a few. Public health events are
typically widely covered in the media; they are scary especially
without accurate and timely information. We want to provide
information and help the public to understand the labs’ role in making
sure they are safe. Social media allows us to reach a huge number of
people more effectively than by using traditional media and marketing
alone; by providing information during a public health event or crisis
we can quell or even prevent panic before it starts.

Social media is the key channel for reporting of laboratory activities
in response those public health events. (Side note: I just read a post
that said the term ‘real-time’ should be eliminated from our daily
language because it is so widely expected that it is unnecessary to
clarify something as being ‘in real-time.’ These days, what isn’t?)
It is important to let people know, for example, what the labs are
doing to identify the source of a foodborne illness outbreak and what
products to avoid and when the outbreak has ended and the foods are
safe again.

Next steps – For APHL, we will focus on video and podcasts as a means
of getting our members voices into the public. Through interviews,
virtual tours, and video trainings we can expose the work of the labs
in a positive way—we want the labs’ work to be accessible (there
are, of course, some security issues with certain aspects of their
work). It continues to be our opinion that the most effective way to
explain what public health labs do is to tell stories. When a crisis
strikes—or even just a public health event—we will tell the story
of what is being done or what was done to address the situation. That
type of information is easy to understand, plus it highlights the work
of our members, the unsung heroes of public health. Then when the
next crisis hits, people will know that the public health labs are
working hard as part of a large network to get things under control.

Much like with the earthquake last summer, we want people to go to
social media during a public health crisis and find information not
just panicked tweets and Facebook posts. Along with our partners at
CDC and the other federal and nonprofit agencies we work closely with,
we want to be a provider of information that helps people and shows
the important work of the public health labs. That’s the bottom line.

There is no better way to do that—no more effective tool—than
social media.