HHS Blog Guidance
This information applies to the entirety of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Operational Divisions and Offices within the Department may create guidance and establish policies that are more restrictive if the appropriate management so chooses.
This document is an introductory guide for HHS offices/agencies interested in learning more about blogging and ways it can be incorporated into new or existing communications plans. The document covers the following questions/issues:
- Introduction: What is a Blog?
- When should my office/agency NOT use a Blog?
- When should my office/agency use a Blog vs. another tool?
- How does my Office/Agency obtain clearance to create a Blog?
- What does my Office/ Agency need to include in a BLOG PLAN?
- Best practices for blogging
- How should we respond to Media inquiries?
- Who else from the government is blogging?
- Parts of a Blog and Blogging Vocabulary
- Great information! BUT I still need a one-on-one consultation
A blog (a contraction of the term "Web log") is a Web site, with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video, usually maintained by an individual, organization, or small group of individuals and typically in a personal or conversational tone. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. "Blog" can also be used as a verb, meaning to maintain or add content to a blog, as in “there are many Federal offices blogging today.”
Many blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject; others function as more personal journals that share opinions and insights. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, Web pages, and other media related to its topic. True blogs provide opportunity for readers to leave comments in an interactive format. Some blogs choose not to accept comments and function more like a newsletter.
The ability to comment allows blogs to create a community, enable readers to become stakeholders and contributors, generate discussion and idea building, and display transparency and engagement. Restricting comments limits the effectiveness of the blog as a communication tool. If you are not inclined to accept comments, carefully review your reasons and reconsider if a blog is really the most appropriate tool for your communications objective.
The most effective blogs cultivate their own identity through the conversational tone of the posts, engage their audience through comments, and are responsive to their readers and the overall dialogue in the blogosphere.
Why Blogs Are Important
- Blogs are a more intimate way to convey your message and a unique way to get people involved through interaction. It’s one part of the communications mix, like e–mail alerts and press releases.
- Blogs put a human face on government and often have their own “voice” and personality.
- Blogs can make government more open by allowing interaction between government and its citizens.
- Blogs can foster a community of individuals in which they can access, discuss, and share information around a common interest.
Read more about the State of the Blogosphere from Technorati
Before you commit, it is important to note that there are considerable resources involved in managing a Federal blog. A successful blog needs dedicated resources, time, and staff to moderate comments and make it an effective communication tool. It also requires a commitment. The first few entries are fun, even exciting. Without purpose and commitment, they quickly become a chore. Irregular and infrequent blogging eventually fails.
Do NOT use a blog if:
- You cannot commit or do not have the time to consistently write and publish content often enough to keep an audience informed and interested. Do not use press releases as a substitute for actually writing a post that will engage your audience. Blog readers do not appreciate shameless self-promotion, and on a Federal blog, that type of content reinforces a perception of government as a faceless bureaucracy.
- You do not have the resources or staff for the following responsibilities:
- Reviewing blog posts for typos, grammatical errors, content clearance by someone other than the author.
- Moderating and reviewing comments for
- Preventing spammers from posting harmful links to sites that might contain malware
- Protecting commenters new to blogging from inadvertently posting their personal contact info (people will occasionally leave a phone number or address in a comment)
- Filtering for personal attacks and offensive content
- Ensuring reporters do not inappropriately leave comments and attempt to circumvent their established media contacts.
- Managing the technical side of the blog including designing the look and feel of the blog and posting individual entries as well as associated images or files.
- Monitoring and Reporting regularly on activity within the blog as well as in the rest of the blogosphere related to your blog. Readers will quickly realize if the blog is a one-way channel, disregarding comments and the voice of the blogosphere.
Promoting the blog. Just because you build it, does not necessarily mean they will come.
First of all, you (and/or someone from your team) should experience blogs first-hand. Go find a blog and read and follow it. Take note of what you like about the better blogs and what makes them effective. Open up a personal account and try keeping a journal about a personal interest. If you still don’t get it, at least you will know how it functions.
Second, define your objectives and target audience to determine if using a blog as a social media tool is appropriate for that audience. Consider the following questions with your target audience in mind:
- Are the stakeholders you are trying to reach currently engaged in the blogosphere?
- If they are not currently engaged, are they likely to engage in the blogosphere?
- Will you be able to engage them?
- Are you filling a need and adding value for your target audience by creating a blog, or are you duplicating current efforts?
- Is blogging the most efficient, effective way to meet your communication goals?
Consider the following examples of types of blogs/ posts and how your office/agency might effectively engage your target audience:
- Explanatory – Provide an analogy or tell a story as an engaging way of explaining a complex process or concept to your readers.
- Interviews– Interview an expert on a relevant subject. Interview posts are a way to share the expertise or opinion from a credible source that may not have time to write for your blog, or may not feel comfortable writing in the conversational style characteristic of blogs.
- Profile– Focus on a particular case study, organization or interesting personality and the characteristics that have lead to success. Sometimes these are more like reviews with instructional content to them and suggestions for improvement.
- Informational–Share articles, Websites, postings, etc. that relate to your topic by summarizing, interpreting, or linking to other content on the Web.
- Contrasting Perspectives – Outline both sides of a perspective, project, service or approach.
- Success Stories –Tell a story of success or paint a picture of what could be. These posts can be inspirational and motivational. Your audience can share ideas, resources, or stories on similar experiences.
- Critique Posts – Review a project undertaken by your office or another organization and discuss lessons learned by identifying elements that contributed to success, unanticipated challenges, and constructive alternatives.
- Event Blog- Give up-to-date information about a progressing current event over the course of several weeks or even several hours. These blogs state up-front that they are active for a finite amount of time and often have more frequent posts than other types of blogs.
- Solicit Ideas- Ask your audience for input on a future project or feedback on a project as it progresses.
An Office/Agency/ Program’s presence in the Blogosphere should be part of a broader communications plan. It should not duplicate efforts, but instead enhance them to meet your organizational mission and specific objectives. In order to obtain approval to blog, your Office/Agency/ Program needs to:
- Research audience and communications needs to be addressed. After you have identified your audience, conduct an audience analysis to determine how they seek out and consume information, as well as attitudes relevant to your topic.
- Create a Blog Plan and incorporate it into a communication plan that identifies specific objectives and activities, ensuring that:
- There is a commitment to sustain the blog, averaging at least one posting a week, for a period of no less than six weeks (more frequently if the intended duration of the blog is less than six weeks). Blogs with a finite duration must specify the intended dates.
- Resources are in place to manage the blog, including writing and reviewing blog entries, moderating all comments in a timely fashion, reporting to monitor the success of the blog, and promoting the blog.
The blog will remain within a given area of expertise relevant to the office or person publishing the blog, reflect current Department policy and Department supported activities, and adhere to relevant technical requirements
Read the next section for help on creating a blog plan.
- Obtain approval from your Office/Agency/ Program’s Communications Lead. The blog must serve a defensible professional purpose, worth the expenditure of government time and resources. It must supplement, not simply repeat, existing outreach
- Notify the Center for New Media at firstname.lastname@example.org of your blog initiative, including the purpose and scope, so we can add your blog to our directory and provide suggestions on collaboration opportunities with other Office/Agencies in the department who are using social media tools.
Assuming you have researched whether a blog is an appropriate tool for your goals by conducting an analysis of your target audience, and that you have obtained buy-in from your Communications lead, you should then create a Blog Plan. Below is a set of considerations you should address in your plan:
- Audience- Identify your target audience and provide a justification for why a blog is an appropriate communication tool for this group. What type of engagement is expected from your audience with your particular type of blog (provide feedback, general commentary, share resources/ experiences, submit questions, etc.).
- Justification- Explain what end result you hope to accomplish with the blog. What makes a blog the appropriate tool for your objective, as opposed to a Web page, newsletter, press release, etc.?
- Roles and Responsibilities-
- Authorship- the blog author(s) should be able to write in plain language and carry a conversational tone that can engage readers.
- Blog Management- managing the blog will involve posting content, moderating comments, setting up/ modifying the look and feel of the blog, and monitoring activity on the blog. Monitoring should also include listening in the blogosphere to what people say about your subject matter and especially about your blog. Readers will quickly realize if your blog is out of touch with what is happening in the rest of the blogosphere. Also consider who might assume these responsibilities if the blog manager is sick or on vacation.
- Content Approval- Consider what process and respective staff within your office are necessary for approval and editing of individual posts.
- Supplemental Pages-
- About Page- Be clear about what the blog represents (e.g., what initiative of which Office/Agency) and what the scope of the blog is.
- Comment Policy- State the expectations for conduct of your readers and tell them what they can expect in return. Be prepared to anticipate comments that may express views ranging from full support to total opposition; full discourse should be allowed within the limits of the comment policy. This page should also include information on privacy and disclaimer. See the comment policy for the Center for New Media for an example or as a model to create your own.
Technical Requirements- Although the items below are not part of the communication strategy, it is important to demonstrate in your blog plan that your office has thoroughly considered each requirement.
Blogging Software Platform- Consult other offices regarding their experiences and satisfaction with various blogging platforms. If your office will be using a software provider that offers free services to users, be sure to check that HHS has signed a Terms of Service agreement with that provider.
- 508 Compliance- The blogging platform, and all posts and comments must meet Section 508 requirements for accessibility. Read more about requirements for Section 508.
- Records- All posts and all comments, whether published or not, are considered official records and the maintenance of these records, in either electronic or print format, is the responsibility of the office or agency originating the blog. Some blogging platforms send an email to the administrator each time a person leaves a comment, which can be kept as records of comments submitted. Other platforms allow you to export comments, or blog posts complete with accompanying comments, which can then be kept in print or electronic format. Contact your Records official to determine the required schedule for maintaining web records.
- Personally Identifiable Information- In accordance with the HHS Information Security policies, blogs should not require commenters to submit any personally identifiable information (PII). Some blogs require people to submit an email address, which is not considered personally identifiable information, to submit a comment, even if it is not published. However, people often feel more comfortable if they have the option to leave anonymous comments. Read more about PII
- Content Planning and Frequency of blog posts- Be clear from the get-go in your blog plan about how often you expect to post entries to your blog. It is ideal to post at least once a week, but if you have short entries, your readers will expect more frequent posts. It is also helpful to have a schedule for content or topics prepared for a few posts ahead.
Promotion and Marketing: Start by introducing yourself (in your inaugural blog post as well as your about page) and link to your blog from your Web site.
Additional Promotional Strategies:
- Blog Title and Branding: Make your blog title and web address easy to remember and short. Be creative with the layout and look of your blog while maintaining your brand identity.
- Cross-linking: Submit your blog to be posted in the HHS social media directory and market your new blog presence on your Web site. Also consider asking your office and/or team to add a link to your blog in their e-mail signatures.
- Leverage current channels and relationships: Announce your blog through your email listserv or twitter handle.
- Blogger Outreach: Identify other influential bloggers and opinion leaders, establish a relationship, and encourage them to inform their readers about your blog. It is helpful if there is an established relationship with these key influencers before you launch the blog.
- Additional Partnerships: Consider the additional sources of information for your target audience, as identified in your audience analysis. These sources are potential partnerships for cross-linking and guest bloggers, which will help draw additional readers to your blog from existing audiences of these other sources.
Monitoring and Evaluation: You should track your ongoing progress on a regular basis. Most blog software platforms offer some sort of statistics and metrics. What follows is a combination of quantitative and qualitative items that will inform you as to the success of your blog as an effective and appropriate communication tool:
Measure the items below over time and watch for trends
- Number of comments per post- What content is engaging for your audience?
- Page views over time- Is your popularity and readership growing as expected due to promotion efforts? Are there spikes in traffic that can be connected to related events?
- Subscribers and relevant metrics for those reading the blog by email and RSS
Monitor the items below and consider
- Theme and tone of comments- How are your readers responding to your content. If possible and appropriate, be responsive to your commenters.
- Referring sites and related commentary in the blogosphere- Who is linking to your blog and what are they saying?
- Write simply, concisely, and conversationally, using plain language guidelines.
- Avoid acronyms, slang and jargon, unless it is appropriate for your audience or you provide definitions.
- No ghostwriting. Be honest about who is writing your posts.
- Limit the length of your post.
- Create a title for each post.
- Use categories, tags, and archives to organize your content.
- Include images in your post when appropriate.
- Links within the blog are encouraged, but links to non-federally managed sites or content should use the standard exit icon ().
- Avoid overwhelming the reader with facts and figures. Keep it simple and link to more details.
- Engage your readers and be responsive to their comments. They will quickly learn if it is a one-way channel and lose interest.
- Be committed to reading every comment received, even if you do not post a response.
Do not respond via your blog to any media inquiries and do not publish comments or questions from reporters to the blog. Your comment policy should clearly state that reporters should direct any media-related inquiries to their usual media contacts within your Office/Agency.
Examples of HHS offices/agencies blogging include:
- AIDS.gov Blog – A blog about new media, research, and policy in response to HIV and AIDS.
- Health Protection Perspectives – Dr. Kevin Fenton, Director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention blogs about CDC’s efforts to reduce health disparities, increase program collaboration and service integration, and improve global health.
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Science Blog – This blog helps NIOSH to fulfill it's mission of translating scientific research into practice. It also provides a forum for NIOSH partners and the public to present ideas to NIOSH scientists and each other while engaging in scientific discussion.
- NIGMS Feedback Loop – This blog by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences is intended primarily for current grantees, applicants and others in the scientific community who want the latest information on funding opportunities, meetings, and resources
- Genetic Diversity & Health Blog- provides a forum for commentary and perspectives on issues relating to the mission and research currently being carried out at the Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health.
See the screen shot below of an example blog and labeled blog parts.
Archive: Blogs organize content using a number of elements, most commonly date and topic, and sometimes author if there are several. Readers use archives on blogs to easily browse past posts.
Authority: Measure of a site's standing & influence in the blogosphere. Authority is calculated by Technorati using an algorithm based on a site’s linking behavior, categorization and other associated data over a short, finite period of time. Read more from Technorati about Authority.
Avatar: A graphical representation of a blog author or commenter or his/ her alter ego
Blogger: A person who owns or writes for a weblog
Blogosphere: The totality of blogs; blogs as a community; blogs as a social network.
Blog Post Header: Top of each post that orients readers and commonly contains some combination of the title of the post, the date/ time posted, and author.
Blog Post Footer: Bottom of each post that may include date/ time posted, author, a Permalink, and links to other platforms through which users can share your content with others (e.g. Facebook, Digg, Delicious, etc.).
Blogroll: A list of links in the sidebar of a blog, often linking to other blogs.
CAPTCHA: An acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. These are helpful to block automated spam comments and typically consist of word and letter verification images you must type in to show you are human before your comment is submitted.
Comment Spam: Blog comments that are off-topic, often of a commercial or advocacy nature, and/or with links to dubious sites that may infect users computers with malware. Some comment spam is overt but just as often it takes the form of innocuous remarks such as "I agree with your article!" or "Hey, great site!" often with a link.
Commenter: A person who leaves remarks in the 'comments' section offered by many blogs.
Comment Footer/ Header: Information about the commenter and when the comment was submitted that appears either above or below the comment.
Comment Submission Box: Where readers can enter their comments. Some comment submissions also require/ allow readers to login in or submit a name, email address, or Web link, or display an avatar.
Permalink: A link to a specific article in a blog, which will remain valid after the article, is no longer listed on the blog's front page.
Tags- labeling posts with keywords to organize similar content
Tag cloud – Displaying tags lists or keywords in a blog
Trackback: A notification submitted by another website (usually another blog) that a link to your blog has been made (usually within an article being posted).
If you still have questions about whether a blog is the right tool for your office/agency, what content is or isn’t appropriate to blog about, or want to brainstorm a new way to implement a blog with your stakeholders, you can contact the HHS Center for New Media at email@example.com.
Parts of a Blog