Monday, April 21, 2014

Using Social Media to Generate Public Awareness in a Crowded Marketplace

Attracting public attention to any single issue represents a significant challenge for public administrators.  The proliferation of web sites and television stations, combined with the decline of print journalism in many markets, has complicated the task of generating public awareness – a task that is a key step in most action plans designed to facilitate change. Given this challenge, social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube represent an important avenue for generating public awareness.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Journalism Project and the Knight Foundation, approximately 47% of adult Facebook users, (30% of adults in the US) use Facebook to seek out news. In addition, the researchers note that 78% of these users obtain news while on the site “without actually looking for it,” as one survey respondent explained.  An update to the report posted by Pew Research in November 2013 includes helpful info-graphics that demonstrate the usage rates of the top sites and the subset of users who actively seek news via those sites.

In addition to their subscribers, the sites serve as a powerful tool to promote near instantaneous “word of mouth” coverage well beyond the subscribers, thereby driving traffic to traditional news media outlets for more in-depth coverage. In an increasingly crowded market place, this represents a low-cost, high-impact method for generating public attention and engagement, as the CDC observed after the launch of its Zombie Apocalypse campaign in 2011.

Public attention is naturally focused on news of emergencies as they unfold, and social media sites have proven effective for communicating live updates and helping to direct resources to assist victims. Yet the CDC traditionally faced a significant challenge directing attention to disaster preparedness.  The CDC’s Zombie Apocalypse campaign attracted attention to the CDC’s mission by framing disaster preparedness through what had become popular reference point – zombies. The campaign was successful in part because it successfully straddled the fine “edutainment” line, using social media as a mechanism to attract the attention of millions of viewers of popular zombie television shows and enabling them to think about and discuss disaster preparedness via an activity they found to be entertaining.

Although some people criticized the tactic as inappropriate, the public’s response was overwhelmingly positive. As noted by Marjorie Kruvand and Maggie Silver in their paper, “Zombies Gone Viral,” the campaign shattered all previous CDC records for visitors to its emergency preparedness campaigns, with over 4.8 million visitors to the blog over the course of its first 8 months, compared with 1,000 – 3,000 visitors the agency typically received for posts, as well as over 120 comments compared to an average of around 5 posts (Kruvand & Sliver, 2013).  The authors of this study note that the campaign was conceived and launched in part due to the decentralized nature of the CDC’s communications departments and because it was initially viewed as a short-term tactic (1 week or so) to try to generate attention among young people.   Had the organizational structure for the communications teams been more centralized and hierarchical, the campaign might not have made it off the ground, as it might have been deemed offensive or even unprofessional before it was launched. Instead, when the idea was pitched, the team was given the opportunity to develop and then test the concept. 

The CDC’s campaign clearly increased awareness, but did it prompt people to action? In light of the campaign’s overwhelming success at generating public awareness, CDC admits in retrospect that it would have been helpful to include an evaluation of the campaign’s affect on public disaster preparedness levels. For example, the CDC could have taken the concept one step further by asking users to take photos of their disaster preparedness kits and to post them on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for a chance to win prizes. They could have partnered with the television series, which might have sponsored prizes to selected individuals who submitted disaster preparedness kits or plans to CDC. They could have sponsored a contest and awarded prizes, such as filming a scene from an episode and hosting an autograph session at local fire departments, to communities with the most disaster preparedness plans submitted by households within a given period of time, for example.

CDC’s Zombie campaign effectively increased public awareness and even engagement, but it is unclear if it increased action. Perhaps future campaigns will include methods of engaging individuals and communities in preparedness activities, and of tracking and sharing those results via social media.

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