Sunday, November 23, 2014

How Social Media Can Improve Public Awareness

Strike out the word that does not belong to this group:

Zombies, Twitter, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Comic Con, CNN, Emergency Preparedness

If you just struck out one, than you made the same mistake than most government agencies: They underestimate the power of social media and how it can help them to increase their communication efforts with the public. Probably the best example that can illustrate how the public sector can do so is the "Zombie Emergency Preparedness" campaign by the CDC, which started in March 2011. While they were wondering if people would even see their messages about how to best prepare for emergency situations, they asked their followers which emergencies they were prepared for. The answer was very surprising: "Zombies". The idea was born.

The goal was to create a social media campaign linking preparedness to a fictional zombie apocalypse. While their budget was very limited, social media tools would offer a quick, easy and cost-effective solution. The entire campaign was implemented only by CDC staff and no external contractors were hired. Furthermore, not only their input was quite low, but also their expectations about the impact.

This was the first text they published:

"There are all kind of emergencies out there that we can prepare for. Take a zombie apocalypse for example. That's right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you'll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you'll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency."

When the campaign started, it took off like a rocket. Nine minutes after the first tweet was sent on May 18, 2011, the server hosting the blog crashed. But not only the internet community took notice. It was also the start of a two-day period of heavy media coverage.


"Public health and preparedness are not sexy. But it turns out, zombies are." To make use of this attention, the CDC followed up through increasing their efforts with social media, but also offered buttons, badges and even a 34-page graphic novella, which was created solely by their in-house graphic designers. The head of the CDC spoke at the Comic Con in New York, the second largest fan convention of comics in the U.S., and teamed up with AMC, the network broadcasting "The Walking Dead". In 2011, the traffic of the visits to the homepage of the CDC increased by 1,143% compared to 2010.

So why was this campaign so successful? It went viral very quick, injected humor and pop-culture, designed the social media strategy around the mission, the team was small and could make quick decisions, reacted quickly, thought ahead and scaled up.

But the more interesting question is: Can this approach be applied to other E-Governance issues? Unfortunately not much. While a large part of its success was based on its funny and especially viral media coverage, the CDC is still supposed to be the most credible source for public health information. If they would release similar campaigns every month then no one would believe them any more in the long run. This also applies to other government agencies. It was so successful and effective because it was a one-time campaign that no one expected.

While there are several other reasons that would support that claim, I would like to point one other very important fact: It is still unclear wether the attention translated into motivation to prepare for emergencies, which was the initial mission of this campaign. Just the sheer number of social media activity does not determine how successful it really was. This is very hard to measure and the CDC missed out on this in my opinion.

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