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Leveraging Social Networks to Communicate During Public Health Emergencies

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A crisis tests the effectiveness of your digital strategy. Superstorm Sandy presented the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with one of our most serious tests in recent memory.

In the aftermath of the storm, people in effected communities scrambled to plug in their smart phones anywhere that still had power. Mobile phones served as a lifeline for those checking in with loved ones and connecting to the outside world. Suddenly, people had questions about a variety of new issues, including health concerns, food safety questions, and proper cleanup procedures.

HHS needed to get the right information into the hands of the people who needed it, when they needed it. The key was communicating short, actionable messages that people could access without draining their mobile phone batteries. Twitter, with its 140 character limit, seemed to be the answer as millions were already using this social media channel to update their status and look for emergency information. HHS was able to use Twitter to share information effectively with those who needed it.

HHS used existing Twitter feeds to effectively communicate storm-related information to more than 1.6 million subscribers. These posts answered people’s questions and alerted them to hazards they might not have been aware of.

Using these accounts, we were able to quickly distribute information to help keep Americans safe and healthy before, during, and after the storm.  Some examples of the tweets sent out by various HHS accounts during Sandy include:



Follow HHS on Twitter

Don’t have Twitter? You can sign up for receive messages from any of these accounts through your mobile phone’s text messaging system (SMS). Just text Screenshot of how to get tweets sent directly to your cell phone via text message.  Just text 'follow @[the account your interested in]' to 40404 and you’ll received all the accounts messages as texts.  Standard messaging rates apply. ‘follow @[the account your interested in]’ to 40404 and you’ll receive tweets as text messages.

In an emergency situation, receiving text updates is better than opening up the Twitter app because it uses less battery power. Also, even if your mobile network gets congested or you can’t connect to the Internet during an emergency, text messages can typically get through.

HHS offers a one-stop shop for all the disaster information during public health emergencies at phe.gov/emergency. PHE.gov consolidates the information we put out so you don’t have to go to multiple websites once you’re back online.

There are a number of tools you can use to help you prepare for the next disaster:

  • Follow the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response on Twitter at @PHEgovExit Disclaimer to receive information on public health emergency preparedness, response and recovery.
  • Start a conversation with your friends and family. Learn who you can count on, and find out who’s counting on you.
  • Create a communication and disaster response plan using the Lifeline Facebook apps.
How else can HHS help you through public health emergencies?

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